Hillary's pre-K blinders

Liam Julian

Hillary Clinton wore a multi-hued, child-constructed necklace as she announced on Monday her plans for nationwide, voluntary, pre-kindergarten education for four-year-olds.

Her proposal calls for the federal government to allocate to states $5 billion for the first year, gradually scaling up that commitment to $10 billion per annum. Individual states would match Uncle Sam's contributions dollar-for-dollar, and those with existing programs wouldn't be allowed to reduce their current pre-K spending (and let the feds pick up the slack), either.

This plan tries to be sound. It seeks, for example, to assure quality by insisting that all pre-K teachers possess at least bachelor's degrees. That's a simplistic, paper-credential approach to instructional quality control, to be sure, but it's hard to argue that four-year-olds should be taught--provided this is truly to be an educational experience, not just child care--by people who themselves never finished college.

Yet the Clinton plan misses another necessary step that would help ensure that nationwide pre-K is worthwhile: determining whether the program does kids any good by evaluating whether they learn what they should while participating in it.

Clinton made her announcement at North Beach Elementary School in Miami Beach, and she took time to praise the Sunshine State's own pre-K program, which voters authorized in 2002.

But she's conveniently forgotten (or failed to notice) that Florida's plan takes accountability seriously. This year, the state began evaluating how well its individual pre-K providers are preparing kids for kindergarten and posting that information on the web. Parents of four-year-old Miamians, for example, can log on and find out how well a local pre-school's previous pre-K students fared on a simple kindergarten "readiness" test, which measures a student's ability to identify letters, their fluency with the beginning sounds of a word, etc.

Florida is not only providing this information to parents; it's using it as the basis for an accountability system, too. Pre-school providers whose wee students repeatedly do poorly on simple readiness tests when they arrive in kindergarten will have to improve their scores or be dropped from the state's program.

It's unlikely that Clinton would support such an accountability system for her pre-K plan, though. Why? Because she's already opposed a nearly identical accountability system for Head Start, the $7 billion federal program originally designed to promote school readiness.

Head Start's so-called accountability "test" has been at the center of controversy surrounding the program's reauthorization. Critics have misleadingly represented Head Start's National Reporting System as a horrible burden that subjects preschoolers to tortuous examinations. But in reality, the reporting consists of a 15-minute oral interview that judges whether kids have learned their letters and associate sounds with written words (see here).

Sounds a lot like the good stuff going on in Florida. Nonetheless, a Senate bill that suspends the current National Reporting System was passed unanimously in February by the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee--a committee on which Clinton sits.

Then there's the issue of choice, on which Clinton's proposal is ominously silent. Will her plan allow parents to choose--as they can in Florida's pre-K system--where to send their children, and will it include private pre-K providers? If not, then all Clinton has really put forth is an unjustifiable, downward extension of the failed K-12 monopoly.

Quality pre-K is a good idea (see here). Studies show that students who participate in excellent programs are more likely to graduate from high school and college than those who don't. Other studies forecast that the government's investment in national pre-K would more than pay for itself by significantly reducing the numbers of unskilled adults in the workforce.

But if we don't hold pre-K providers accountable, and if we don't let parents choose where to send their children, it's both a waste of money and, potentially, a waste of kids' young education lives. If Clinton is truly concerned with fashioning a quality, national pre-K program that works, she should reconsider her stand on accountability and give choice a chance, too.

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