Gaps remain in early childhood education

By KATHY A. GAMBRELL, White House reporter   |   Jan. 7, 2002 at 2:44 PM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 7 (UPI) -- States are providing more early childhood education programs but gaps in quality and access remain for the nation's 11.9 million children under age five, according to a 50-state study released Monday.

"Although all states provide child care subsidies for at least some poor families, wide variations exist in the income limits that families must meet to qualify, the actual dollar amount of the subsidies, and the percentage of eligible children served," the report by a national education newspaper said. "Families with low incomes, particularly the working poor, have the least access to high-quality early-childhood services."

Education Week released the study "Quality Counts 2002: Building Blocks for Success," which found that despite federal and state efforts, access to high-quality early childhood education remains out of the reach of many families.

The study, funded by Pew Charitable Trusts, also provided its annual report card on the progress the 50 states were making in education accountability and teacher quality.

It said that states' financial commitment to early childhood education varies widely, as do eligibility requirements and the number of children who actually receive services. Although every state subsidizes kindergarten in at least some districts, nine states -- Alaska, Colorado, Idaho, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, and Pennsylvania -- still do not require districts to offer kindergarten, the study said.

The study said most states focus pre-kindergarten efforts on the neediest youngsters. Twenty-six target children from low-income families; 15 of those also look at other risk factors, such as having a teenage parent. Nine states leave it up to local districts to determine which risk factors they will consider.

Three states -- Georgia, New York, and Oklahoma -- and the District of Columbia are phasing in pre-kindergarten for any 4-year-old whose parent wants it, regardless of income.

"Part of what's reflected in the report is a long-term problem. It isn't going to lend itself to a short term fix, unfortunately," Stephanie Fanjul, director of student achievement for the National Education Association, told United Press International. "What the report clearly states is that we have to consider the kind of education children receive prior to the time they officially enter school."

Fanjul said in one Arkansas school district, "the governor said they could have teacher salaries (increases) or pre-kindergarten and the teachers said they wanted pre-K because they felt that was so important."

The report also said state governments had "a long way to go" to ensure people who work with young children are both well educated and well compensated.

"As a nation, the United States pays about as much to parking lot attendants and dry cleaning workers as it does to early childhood educators, according to data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics," the report stated.

The average salary for child care workers in 1999 was $15,430, the report said, with pre-school teachers working with 3-to-5-year-olds drawing annual salaries of $19,610. That is less than half of what an elementary school teacher earned in the same year. As a result, the turnover rate among early childhood workers is high and education requirements minimal.

NEA President Bob Chase issued a statement calling the report "an essential roadmap in our journey to helping every child learn."

Chase said early childhood education must be a national priority because that is when the "achievement gap begins."

Chase said the NEA would continue to push for publicly funded universal full-day kindergarten for all children, full government funding for Head Start programs, expansion childcare and development block grants and continued use of welfare funds to pay for child care for low-income working parents.

All 50 states require kindergarten teachers to have at least a bachelor's degree and a certificate in elementary or early childhood education. But only 20 states and the District of Columbia require teachers in state-financed pre-kindergartens to meet similar requirements. In 30 states, teachers in childcare centers can begin work without having any pre-service training.

Fanjul said closing the educational gap requires a three-tier approach, involving federal and state governments and local school districts.

"Full-day kindergarten is at the top of my list," Fanjul said. "It has to be a collaboration of the three forces that shape education policy."

Fanjul said while state and federal tax monies fund education the local school districts also play a part in the decision-making process, such as whether to offer, including full- or half-day kindergarten.

The study comes nearly a month after the U.S. Senate passed sweeping changes to the nation's education system, including increased performance accountability for schools and teachers.

Congress has ordered that by 2003, 50 percent of a Head Start program's teachers must have an associate's degree in early childhood education.

A growing number of states also have initiatives either to help providers acquire more education or to supplement their wages.

Additionally, the study charted the states' overall progress in other areas of education in its annual report card. This year it gave states a "C" grade -- up from a "C-minus" from last year -- for indicators including standards and accountability, efforts to improve teacher quality and resources.

Using a national testing data, the study found 17 states have made statistically significant gains in the percentage of students scoring at or above the "proficient" level in mathematics, with nine states making improvements in math in both the 4th and 8th grades.

It also showed more states making efforts to improve teaching. Arkansas, Idaho, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New Mexico now provide support to new teachers, raising to 15 the number of states requiring and at least partially subsidizing induction programs for new teachers.

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