Can Pittsburgh Implement Universal Pre-K?

I spoke with two local experts about the shift happening in early childhood education, Michelle Figlar of PAEYC, and Dr. Stephen Bagnato, a researcher in early childhood development. 

By Weenta Girmay

When Mayor Peduto met with President Obama, he asked him to make Pittsburgh a laboratory in early education initiatives, including universal preschool. New York’s new Mayor Bill de Blasio has made more recent headlines for campaigning on the issue and continuing to push for its support. It seems the conversation over universal pre-K has reached the height of a crescendo, with research that now supports the conclusion that “the longer society waits to intervene in the life cycle of a disadvantaged child, the more costly it is to remediate disadvantage.”

The most cited and well known longitudinal studies on early childhood education were The Perry project and The Abecedarian project of the early 1980’s. The children in these studies were retested at 5, 8, and 18 with the recent results that individuals who were enrolled in a quality preschool program had higher IQ scores and were more likely to graduate from high school, to own homes, and to have longer marriages. The New York Times reported for those who had fallen behind, the studies also showed that “the difference in cognitive performance was just as big at age 18 as it had been at age 3.” Studies like these are reinvigorating the push for a reinvestment in early childhood education to close the “achievement gap” often cited in children and families who come from poverty.

“There’s never been this much emphasis and talk about this in my 25 year career,” said Michelle Figlar, of the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children (PAEYC). She’s urging that elected officials get behind her Pre-K for PA campaign, a statewide campaign advocating for high quality Pre-K for every 3 and 4 year old in Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania has many funding streams dedicated to early childhood education that trickle down to us on the local level.  Pittsburgh Public Schools utilizes the full range of funding streams, which includes federal and state Head Start, state Pre-K Counts, the Accountability Block Grant, and Early Intervention dollars.

On the surface it seems like Pennsylvania’s doing great in the field of early childhood education. So what’s the problem? The money has not been enough. Pittsburgh Public Schools currently offers free Pre-K, but there’s a waiting list because there isn’t enough funding to make up the number of slots needed. The Accountability Block Grant that funded part of Pittsburgh Public Schools’ free Pre-K program was cut 3 years in a row, and as a result, PPS is forced to charge tuition for families that would have fallen into that funding stream. Even if you’re a family that qualifies for free Pre-K, it’s only offered for 6 hours a day, which for a lot of working parents, especially those in struggling families, isn’t enough.

According to PAEYC, The public funds available for Pre-K in Pennsylvania help “less than 20% of eligible 3 and 4 year olds access high quality programs,” “high quality” being the key here. There’s a variety of public and private options available to a parent, but high quality care is what makes the socio-economic difference in the trajectory of a child from a struggling family. What Figlar and others are advocating for is money that will go towards building and strengthening these high quality programs.

What defines high quality care is its comprehensive approach; it is concerned with teaching healthy social behaviors as well as the cognitive skills that children will need to be better learners and students reaching beyond kindergarten and into the rest of their formal education.

What Figlar said most people would be surprised to know is that funding for early childcare in the United States is a relatively new thing. It grew out of welfare reform in the Clinton Administration and was more focused on getting parents to work than it was in educating their children.

What’s exciting about early childhood learning in on the federal and state level is that for the first time in years, “money has shifted to think about quality,” she says.

The President has proposed a Preschool for All proposal under which “Pennsylvania is estimated to receive $82,900,000 in the first year it participates…This funding, combined with an initial estimated state match of $8,300,000, would serve about 10,129 children from low- and moderate-income families in the first year of the program alone.”

To top it off, in December of 2013 Pennsylvania was awarded $51.7 million over four years to improve program quality through the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge Grant, along with six other states.

“If Pittsburgh wants to do something before the federal and state dollars increase, which I think we do, we’re going to need to have a public-private partnership to make it happen,” said Figlar. “It has to be Pittsburgh public schools working with private childcare providers working with nonprofit providers, because these are the people that have been serving people in the city for a really long time.”

Dr. Stephen Bagnato, a collegue of Figlar’s as well as a premier researcher in the early childhood field says he supports Peduto in his aim toward universal preschool, but that “it appeared to me that in the very beginning, he was very naïve about this, universal preschool in the Pittsburgh area, because you can’t do that alone in the Pittsburgh area unless you know what’s going on at the state level, unless you know what happened before…we had a lot of lessons learned.”

One of the most important lessons learned on the local level is that these public and private partnerships have to be informed by experts on the ground. Bagnato gave the example of the failed Early Childhood Initiative of 1997-2003. The initiative was pushed by community action groups and funded by the Heinz Endowments among others. The program suffered from managerial problems, and a conflict of interest between “expanding child care (“more slots for more kids”) or creating quality early care and education options,” as detailed in a report through the Heinz’ Scaling Progress in Early Childhood Settings (SPEC).

“Unfortunately what the early childhood initiative group did was they tapped United Way to run these programs. United Way has no experience running any program, let alone running preschool programs…That’s why in 2 years, the initiative initially collapsed,” said Bagnato.

He says the role elected officials play in this process is “to have the good idea, and then they need to get out of the way. They need to hook up with people who know what they’re doing in this area. Unfortunately when people begin to run on these platforms they get input from people and then their staff begin to make policy and recommendations that they don’t know anything about.”

Bagnato adds that all providers need to be in a network, “making the un-system, a system because there is no system in early childhood, almost in any state…[although] we’ve gotten closer to it than a lot of other places.” This network of providers would bring all providers at the local level together to provide a menu of options for parents and would also provide a way for parents to recognize which programs were high quality. “Every region should have some of the same foundations, which is again Head Start early, Head Start, Pre-K Counts, early intervention,” he said.

As an educator, early childhood learning can be a stressful place to be. Children from struggling families are bringing stresses from home and the accompanying behavioral problems into the classroom. The specific tactics needed to redirect these behaviors require staff not just trained on the job, but trained through higher learning with certifications in education or early childhood. This training is also a core element of what makes a high quality program.

Bagnato and Figlar have also consistently agreed on the need for training and support for teachers and professionals in the early childhood field, as well as higher compensation, yet the average salary for a head teacher in an early childhood classroom is $9.00 an hour, which makes for high turnover and teachers leaving for other fields.

While the specifics of the design of a universal Pre-K system are still being worked out, Figlar speculates that it will look much like federally funded Head Start programming looks like now: “built into the programming might be a social worker, a family advocate, a mental health specialist…quite frankly that costs more per child, but it should and I think that’s what we should be able to say that we’re going to invest in.”


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