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High-Quality Pre-K Top Priority for Americans, New Poll Shows

Brianna Sacks | July 31, 2013

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imagesA national poll released Wednesday found that voters ranked quality early childhood education as a national priority, second only in importance to job growth. They said the U.S. should be doing more to prepare children for kindergarten.

The bipartisan research team of Public Opinion Strategies and Hart Research, commissioned by the early education advocacy group First Five Years Fund, said that 86 percent of the 800 registered voters who participated, rated universal high-quality pre-K as a major national concern. And about half said they “strongly support” President Obama’s $75 billion universal pre-K proposal.

California could receive as much as $335 million from the federal plan for preschool programs during its first year, which would allow the state to serve an additional 41,000 children, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Almost 70 percent of respondents said they want Congress to “take action now” to fund a federal plan to help states and communities fund higher-quality early childhood programs for middle and low-income families. Many lawmakers have withheld support over funding issues.

Even though states say they support quality public preschool, many disagree on how to pay for it. The L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 this month to match the Obama plan, with the two dissenters, Don Knabe and Michael Antonovich, saying the funding model is unsustainable.

While California has already begun experimenting with affordable universal pre-K programs, quality preschool is still out of reach for many families in the state, especially in Los Angeles.

“We need to start addressing the serious achievement gap by starting one year of quality preschool for 3 and 4 year-olds if possible,” said Celia C. Ayala, chief executive of Los Angeles Universal Preschool. “The reality is that we don’t have enough dollars. ”

The poll respondents agreed, with 68 percent saying that as many as half the children beginning kindergarten lack the knowledge and skills needed to do well.

Creating more high-quality pre-K programs is a huge deal in California, which cut about $1 billion from its childcare and development programs since 2008, resulting in 110,000 children losing out on preschool and child care.

For most Los Angeles low and middle income families, paying for quality pre-K is not an option, with most programs costing about $10,000.

“We have a severe lack of quality preschool in this city,” said Ayala.

Los Angeles Universal Preschool, LAUP, is one example of a small-scale model of President Obama’s nationwide low-cost, high-quality preschool program created by a voter-approved increased cigarette tax in 2004.

LAUP has about 300 quality preschool programs in LA County and has served about 60,000 students over the past seven years. And like most programs in Los Angeles, LAUP has a majority of students from Latino families that generally make less than $44,000 a year.

California is taking early childcare initiatives into it’s own hands but is still not investing enough in highly educated teachers and quality learning environments, Ayala said.

Rebounding from the recession is a slow process, says California Head Start Executive Director Rick Mockler. Especially since pre-K funding took almost 20 percent of the overall cuts.

“One way or the other, we are moving in the right direction. Were doing it more incrementally than other states that launched it in one swoop,” he said.

Mockler says the state is building the infrastructure to give more children access to high-quality pre-K, but President Obama’s initiative would greatly accelerate the process and open more spots for the thousands of children currently on wait lists for subsidized high-quality programs.

Previous posts: California Awaits Obama’s Pre-K Funding Specifics, First Daughter Yawned During Obama Speech, School Board Gives Final Approval to 24th St. Plan

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