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Pre-K for Charter Schools?

In Washington, D.C., the Apple Tree Institute runs three charter pre-schools serving low-income students. An evaluation shows Apple Tree preschoolers scoring above national averages on measures of school readiness. Meanwhile, in Chicago, Legacy Charter School, a high-performing elementary school serving a similar population, wants to offer pre-K but can't afford it.

Increasingly, charter operators and authorizers are looking to start pre-K programs to complement their work in K-12 education. Yet they are often hamstrung by law and funding issues, as Sara Mead writes in an essay for the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. Mead says getting access to money is the biggest problem. Early-childhood funding is already fragmented and hard to tap; for charter operators, the challenge increases when state agencies don't know how to work with them, or pre-K money flows to districts that control whether charters can participate or not. A secondary problem is that state charter laws often don't make it clear whether charters may or may not offer pre-K.

Mead recommends that states support charters that want to offer pre-K by spelling out the law and "modestly" supplementing state pre-K funds for charter schools. She argues that charters often get less per-pupil than district-run schools, making it harder for them to supplement often-inadequate pre-K allotments the way district schools might.

Changes to federal policy could also make it easier for charters to run pre-K programs, Mead says. As Head Start prepares to drop low-performing sites and open those funds to competition, charter schools should be allowed to compete. The feds could also encourage Head Start grantees to subcontract with charter schools and help charters learn how to access and combine Head Start, child-care and other early-childhood funding streams to create their own pre-K programs.

Would charters bring new ideas and innovation to the pre-K landscape? Research shows that in K-12, though bright spots of high performance exist, charters overall have not outperformed their district-run counterparts. In fact, on average kids in charters are underperforming. Readers, is there any reason to think charters would do better than that in pre-school?

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