A Preview of Pre-K
How Alabama's First Class program could serve as a model for things to come
Not too many people spend their Friday nights watching C-SPAN, but advocates for expanded pre-kindergarten were paying rapt attention on November 19, 2021, when the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Build Back Better Act. Among the many provisions of the proposed legislation is a grant program aimed at helping states bring universal pre-K to more 3- and 4-year-olds.
While there’s still a lot up in the air (including passage of the bill in the Senate), it’s safe to say there’s never been such a bright national spotlight on the importance of early childhood education. Fortunately, it’s not hard to imagine a country where pre-K is accessible to more kids; in some states, this dream is already a reality. One such state is Alabama, whose carefully constructed model for universal pre-K could serve as a blueprint for the rest of the country. In fact, much of the framework for expanded pre-K outlined in Build Back Better is already part of Alabama’s program.
Alabama’s “First Class” Approach
Alabama’s First Class program provides full-year pre-K for any 4-year-old who is a resident of the state, at no cost to parents. Each of the following components allows the state to reach more kids while clearly defining what a high-quality classroom experience looks like.
For starters, First Class is open to all kids, regardless of household income. This is in contrast with pre-K models that only serve families classified as low-income—and determining eligibility can be slippery.
According to Dr. Steven Barnett of the National Institute for Early Education Research, poverty is a moving target.“Targeted programs in practice are like leaky buckets because poverty is not a constant condition,” he tells us. Low-income families frequently move above and below the poverty line—presenting a challenge for programs that use income to determine eligibility.
“About half of the children who enter Head Start at age 3 below the poverty line will no longer be considered eligible by the time they leave for kindergarten,” Barnett explains. “And many children who were not eligible during the enrollment window will go unserved.” A universal approach solves this problem by recognizing that every kid can benefit from early childhood education.
Support for Pre-K Teachers
Another key component of Alabama’s approach is recognizing pre-K teachers as professionals. Teachers of young children are sometimes seen by the general public as glorified babysitters, and, unfortunately, their pay usually reflects this
mindset. Within the First Class program, pre-K teachers are paid the same as kindergarten teachers, reflecting the importance of their positions and holding them to the same high expectations set for all educators.
To guarantee that every pre-K teacher lives up to the program’s high standards, Alabama has built supporting teachers into the First Class framework by creating positions for teacher coaches. These positions aren’t designed to look over teachers’ shoulders or find fault in their work, but to provide them with help and guidance. And there’s not one prescribed routine for everyone; new teachers get more attention and focus than veteran teachers, for example. The overarching goal is to equip teachers to be effective educators.
Both Alabama’s First Class program and the Build Back Better Framework recognize that public schools should not have to bear the burden of implementing universal pre-K alone. Instead, both frameworks make funding available to different types of providers—whether that’s local schools or community organizations like nonprofits.
In order for organizations in Alabama to access funding, they must adhere to program guidelines, including caps on the maximum number of students per classroom and clear student-teacher ratios. First Class hires monitors who conduct site visits and meet with participating partners to ensure these guidelines are followed.
If an organization fails to meet program standards, their funding can be taken away. It sounds drastic, but it’s how Alabama guarantees every dollar of funding is used to best serve students. “There are always programs that want the money,” says Dr. James Ernest, a professor of Early Childhood Education at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “Yes, you might be taking money away, but that allows you to give money to another organization that will meet those standards.”
The pre-K provision in Build Back Better proposes the biggest federal investment in early childhood education since the creation of Head Start in 1965. However, if the legislation passes, it falls on individual states to create universal pre-K programs that conform to the bill’s guidelines. States will likely find that there are challenges to expanding early childhood education.
Here, too, we can learn from Alabama’s program, which intentionally crafted standards and goals before allocating funding. It can be tempting for legislators to start with a budget number and then design a program around that dollar amount. But Alabama’s success has shown that starting with sound program design and refusing to compromise on that vision pays off in the end. Experts say that while this approach costs more and may result in slower expansion, it is preferable to have a high-quality program that takes longer to roll out than a low-quality program implemented in one budget cycle.
Another challenge states may encounter is the unpredictability of federal funding. Nothing is ever truly set in stone, and even the version of Build Back Better passed by the House only sets aside money for pre-K expansion for six years. However, there is precedent for states seizing the opportunity to implement new programs for young learners when incentivized.
For example, grant funding provided through the 1986 Program for Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities enticed states to implement early intervention services. While states weren’t required to establish these services, every state eventually did so. “Obviously, it’s about education, but it also becomes about economics at some point in time—it’s just a good investment,” says Ernest. “No state has said, We’re not going to do that.”
In addition, expansion in and of itself presents challenges. Gayle E. Headen is the Executive Director of Wake County Smart Start, a North Carolina nonprofit. Their work includes supporting and funding community partners that offer early childhood education and family support programs, including the NC Pre-K program in Wake. Headen fears a big push for more early childhood education programs could make expansion the overriding objective—when a high-quality experience should always be the main goal. “There’s a balance that will be important to maintain,” says Headen. “Beyond just having more seats, you have to ensure children are being nurtured. These are the most critical years for kids.”
Pre-K: Here to Stay
Sometimes it’s easy to get lost in numbers and technical details, but what’s important is the impact these programs have on families. At Wake County Smart Start, Headen takes pride in the systems her team has built, but she knows the real impact happens on a more granular level. “Now, I’m working to help my board make the connection between what we’re doing at a systems level and what that means in the life of an individual,” she says.
During meetings with her board members, Headen starts with what she calls Mission Moments—opportunities to look beyond budget numbers and program documents and focus instead on the real people Wake County Smart Start is impacting. In one memorable Mission Moment, a mother was at a public health clinic, talking with doctors about the worrying diagnosis her infant had received. Clinic staff realized that, with an old, cracked phone and no home internet, she wasn’t able to stay on top of her child’s care.
So the staff gave her an 11-inch tablet preloaded with a data plan. Wake County Smart Start had provided the clinic with these tablets as part of a public and private initiative partially funded by the RBC Foundation and Verizon. This mother walked out of the clinic with the technology she needed to coordinate care for her child. Her story demonstrated to everyone in the boardroom that the point of the program wasn’t the number of tablets distributed. “All of that system-level work is fantastic,” Headen says, “but what matters is the impact on the child and their mother.”
So what role do school leaders have to play in the expansion of pre-K access? As respected educators, you can use your community platform to help shape proposed policies or advocate for changes to existing programs. In this important national conversation about how to best serve our youngest learners, you have a voice. And if—or when—your district is eligible for funding to implement pre-K programs, use those dollars to the best of your ability. Show your communities that pre-K can be done well, that early childhood education is a valuable investment, and that our youngest learners are worth every cent.
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