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Universal Pre-K: Why it Might Be a Great Idea

The Reality of Universal Pre-KAs predicted, the President did mention Universal Pre-K in his State of the Union Address last night. A good chunk of his speech, in fact, was devoted to education at all levels. But considering I have one 4-year-old son at home, the topic of early education holds a bit more weight than college affordability (says the woman with massive student loan debt strapped to both ankles).

In case you missed it, President Obama kicked off the topic by saying, “Research shows that one of the best investments we can make in a child’s life is high-quality early education.”

That’s hard to argue with, right? But not everyone is beaming sunshine and roses about what a Universal Pre-K initiative would realistically look like. Babble.com blogger Brian Gresko, for instance, wrote a thoughtful and insightful post titled, “The President to Call for Pre-K for All: Why That Might Not Be a Great Idea,” and he makes some great points.

While Brian and I (and the President, apparently) are in agreement that every 4-year-old should be provided a free pre-kindergarten experience, what kind of program would our government fund? If the programs are anything like Brian has encountered in New York City, they could be an extension of the rigorous academic preparation and one-size-fits-all education model solidified with recent national testing standards. Is this the kind of pre-K we want for our kids? Is this even a good idea, at all?

Although some of the President’s language about early education raised red flags (like “race to the top” and “this is right for America“), his intentions seem to stem from providing preschool opportunities to low-income (and, let’s be honest, middle-income) families. Because that’s the real issue here.

SOTU Address and Universal Pre-K

Have you been through the preschool process? Do you know how hair-pullingly expensive it is to send a kid to preschool? And the hours! Most preschool programs operate on half days (or less than that), which is totally fine if you happen to work from home (ahem) or have additional childcare in place (which, $$$). For 9-to-5 working families, preschool options are pretty crappy. And pricey.

In a perfect world, we’d all be teaching our kids at home or enrolling them in play-based programs that fit into our flexible work schedules. But that’s not our reality. That’s not the system in place. So we can pay a second mortgage in preschool costs or we can send kids to a daycare-like setting where they aren’t prepared for a classroom. Or sit them in front of the TV while mom plugs away on her computer.

A lot of families need affordable preschool programs — even if they only teach kids how to hold a pencil properly and follow orders and walk in line, as Brian noted. Because, whether we like it or not, our kids are being enrolled in these public Kindergarten systems where they will be behind. They’ll see other kids understanding the system of cubbies and circle time, being comfortable with peers, knowing how to hold pencils and follow orders and walk in line. They might see other kids already knowing how to read or making other academic strides that they never had an opportunity to learn at a home-based daycare or in front of the TV. And then they might feel discouraged about going to school — setting them up for a struggle. I consider myself lucky to have found a play-based preschool program that we can (barely) afford because I know, without a doubt in my mind, that my son is ready for kindergarten. Not all parents are this lucky.

The reality of the matter is this: whether we agree with our educational system or not, this is the system we have. No amount of magical thinking will transform the American model into the one over in Finland. No amount of avoidance or denial will change the fact that many parents CAN’T avoid or deny the system. When private school is unaffordable and alternative schooling isn’t an option, parents have to turn to their tax-payer-funded public school — as they should. Even if the public school system causes doubt and anxiety and frustration, many of us don’t have another option.

But the system has to change, you say. The system is broken, and extending that broken system to the preschool level will only do more damage.

Unless we can use it as an opportunity — the chance to jam our foot in the door and shoulder our way through the crack, yelling through our megaphones (and blogs and emails and grassroots campaigns). Last night, the President stated that he’s going to pull together “a coalition of elected officials, business leaders, and philanthropists” to help more kids access high-quality pre-K. Why can’t we piggyback on the President’s call to action? Why can’t we use our collective voices to steer our local programs into something that’s healthy and age-appropriate, while still preparing them for a classroom?

Shouldn’t we at least try?

We can fight blue vs. red, public vs. private, them vs. us all the live-long day. The fact remains: too many parents are feeling trapped. Too many children are starting their school career off with overwhelming exhaustion. Too many 5-year-olds are already behind.

For those of us who can’t avoid the system, we have to change it from within. And maybe — just maybe — the Universal Pre-K initiative is a good entrance point. Even if we have to fight our way through the door.

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