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UC Berkeley Press Release

Stick to what works, researchers tell preschool advocates and policy makers

– As efforts accelerate to develop a universal preschool system, advocates and policy makers should focus dollars on blue-collar families, not hand preschools over to public schools, avoid wasting money on unneeded teacher credentials, and steer clear of an English-only approach for young children, according to a new University of California, Berkeley-Stanford University study.

The report, "How to Expand Preschool in California: Ideals, Evidence and Policy Options," is to be released today (Thursday, May 5) by Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), an independent think tank based at the two universities.

"The worthy cause of extending preschool to all families is gaining steam, money and big-name proponents," said Bruce Fuller, co-author of the report and UC Berkeley professor of education and public policy. "But key pillars of initial programs are founded on the sands of weak evidence, ignoring the lessons from leading states."

While the PACE report focuses on California, researchers also relied on recent findings from pioneering states - such as Georgia, New Jersey and Oklahoma - that have rapidly expanded preschool enrollments in recent years.

Over $800 million has been earmarked for universal preschool in California over the past two years, an effort led by Los Angeles County and Sacramento's First 5 Children and Families Commission. Others committing major funding include San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.

A coalition of groups led by Hollywood's Rob Reiner are set to file a ballot measure providing another $2.4 billion yearly to extend free preschool to all California four-year-olds through a 1.7 percent income tax hike on individuals earning over $400,000 a year and couples earning twice that amount. Another version, quickly withdrawn last year before petitions were gathered, would have awarded public schools the authority to run preschools. It sparked opposition from neighborhood organizations, churches and private companies that now run the bulk of local preschools.

The new UC-Stanford study found that 62 percent of California's four-year-olds already attend a preschool program at least part-time. About half the state's publicly supported preschools are in public schools, with the rest run by community organizations, researchers said, and a far greater share in better-off suburbs are nonprofit programs where parents pay fees to enroll their children. The Reiner proposal would raise enrollments to 70 percent of all four-year-olds and aims to improve quality.

"We found no consistent evidence that children's learning curves are steeper in school-based programs, compared with those located in nonprofits," said the report's co-author, Alejandra Livas, a UC Berkeley graduate student. "In states that have pioneered universal preschool, like Georgia and New Jersey, both sets of organizations are equally effective in raising children's learning trajectories."

The PACE team favors what it calls a "mixed market approach," following the example of Los Angeles County, where various organizations extend preschool access to new families. Last month, Los Angeles awarded grants to the first 200 centers and family childcare homes to create new preschool slots.

The UC-Stanford team contends that free and universal access to preschool would be more costly and could widen, not close, early achievement gaps, when compared with targeting dollars on families who have few options in their neighborhoods.

"Several studies have shown that preschool enrollments dip for lower middle-class families - parents who earn too much to qualify for a government subsidy but not enough to pay upwards of $9,000 a year for quality preschool," said Margaret Bridges, a report co-author and director of child development at PACE.

The report emphasizes that a higher share of children in affluent families enter preschool, and at younger ages, than children from lower-income families. Quality standards, such as those being implemented in Los Angeles, also mean that higher per pupil spending may well go to preschools in better-off neighborhoods, the study said.

"In concert, these factors could lead to heavy public subsidies for families who can afford - and presently pay for - high quality preschool," Bridges said. The report details research showing that exposure to preschool most clearly advances the early learning of children from lower-income families.

The researchers question a key provision of the Reiner initiative and the new L.A. program that would require all preschool teachers to attain a four-year bachelor's degree. "This has become the holy grail of advocates who earnestly seek needed gains in preschool quality," Fuller said.

But, he said, in states leading the preschool charge, higher credentials have proven to be very costly and have yielded no discernible gains for children beyond the benefits felt from teachers with a two-year degree and training in child development.

The PACE researchers also are skeptical about moves by major school districts, such as Los Angeles Unified, to revamp preschool curricula and classroom routines and focus heavily on teaching pre-literacy skills in English to the exclusion of social skills and bilingual development.

"The push to align preschools with standardized tests in elementary schools is not surprising. But the evidence does not show that English immersion for young children who don't speak English at home accelerates their development," said Livas. Instead, she said, children who acquire pre-reading skills in Spanish or another language appear to complement early literacy in English.

"Overall, we worry that well-meaning advocates want it all at any cost." Fuller said. "More than baby steps are urgently needed to aid children's early learning. But striding down a dimly lit path is already proving risky and costly."

The complete report can be viewed on the Web at: http://pace.berkeley.edu/pace_universal_preschool.html.

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