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Should Parents Go Underground for Affordable Prekindergarten?

Across the country, parents are filling out applications for public and private preschools and even camping out in hopes of getting a coveted spot.

That's what dozens of Florida parents did Sunday night. They hauled chairs, hammocks and lap tops to a prestigious church preschool in Wellington, hoping to ease the wait until registration opened at 7 a.m. Monday for 70 available spots, according to news reports.

Waiting in line for coveted spots in popular preschools is a fact of life for some parents. Many that I know have their own stories or offer up those of friends who've camped out or waited desperately at home to hear whether their child had been selected by a chosen school.

While the lack of high-quality preschool for low-income kids is well-known, a recent story in The New York Times suggests "there is a growing middle-class gap when it comes to pre-kindergarten." The story quotes Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, who says, "Access is actually lower for middle-income people than it is for people that are poor." That's because cost can be a big issue for middle-class parents who can't get their kids into public programs.

So what are these parents to do if their child doesn't make the cut or they are priced out of preschool options? Some parents in New York City think they've found the answer: create a prekindergarten co-op.

In the Times story, a mother writes of her family's experience after her older child wasn't selected for a spot in the city's public preschool programs and the family was unable to pay for private options, which can run $30,000 or more a year.

Soni Sangha and her husband decided to join other families in running a co-op group out of their homes. At a cost of about $30 per week, the price was right.

"In a co-op pre-K, parents work together to create a school that matches their educational philosophy and worldview. They also run it, finance it, staff it, clean it and administer it -- whatever is necessary to keep costs as low as possible. Often, schools operate from members' homes. Some pupils are taught by parents; others by professional teachers. The downside to such an arrangement? It's a lot of work," Sangha wrote.

And there's the legal issue. Co-ops aren't likely to be held in locations that meet safety and occupancy codes governing public and private schools. Or to use teachers who have undergone criminal or child-abuse background checks. And what if families end up disagreeing on other issues, such as educational philosophy or how much authority a teacher should have? That's what happened to Sangha's group.

Being forced to go underground so your children can have an affordable preschool option seems antithesis to the country's ongoing education reform efforts, which include discussions and research on how best to evaluate early childhood education programs. Just last November, President Barack Obama unveiled new standards for Head Start, the federal early childhood education program for poor kids, to increase quality and improve accountability.

Sangha's story highlights the pressing need for affordable early childhood education for all. If we could meet that goal, maybe parents won't have to turn their family rooms into classrooms.

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