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Examining the Competition for Children Between Public Preschools and Private Providers

The expansion of district-provided preschool in St. Louis was welcome news to many parents, judging by the numbers who have enrolled their children and the district's reports of waiting lists.

But the quick expansion, driven by $23 million in funds from a lawsuit settlement, was not as welcomed by private preschool providers in the city. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the St. Louis Beacon both wrote stories on how those small businesses struggled to compete for students after the district program opened up.  And I explored the issue of so-called "preschool crowd-out" in a story this week, examining St. Louis, New Orleans, and West Virginia.

The issue is particularly acute with 4-year-olds, the children that most public preschool programs are trying to enroll. Because private daycares don't need to hire as many teachers for older children, those 4-year-olds subsidize the costs for younger children. But if those 4-year-olds go to another program, the private daycares are left with the most expensive children to care for. When it's a daycare that may have been financially shaky to start with, the loss of some students can be the final blow—which means younger children may end up in less-regulated care situations. 

Finally, early education advocates say they welcome all the attention to 4-year-olds. Melanie Bronfin, the policy director for the Louisiana Partnership for Children and Families, told me: "It's not about whether we fund the 4-year olds, it's how we fund the 4-year olds." 

Competition for staffing is also a core issue. A preschool teacher at a private center may have no benefits or vacation pay; a new public program can lure away teachers with the promise of an instant raise, plus health care and retirement benefits.

A few things to note: two early childhood providers in St. Louis—Roderick Jones, who is the chief executive officer of a city-based Head Start provider, and Steve Zwolak, the chief executive officer of a child care program that enrolls children from St. Louis and surrounding communities, told me in interviews that they've had positive conversations with the school district. Paula Knight, the associate superintendent overseeing the early childhood program, says she's trying to steer parents to private providers if they can't enroll their children the school-run program.

Also, crowdout is not a given—a 2012 study shows that Oklahoma's school-based universal preschool program did not appear to affect private providers.

Still, the issue has been enough of a concern that West Virginia made its universal preschool program contingent on the participation of private providers, Head Start programs, and child care centers. "We respect the current workforce," Clayton Burch, the executive director of West Virginia's office of early learning, told me. And it's also important to build these partnerships from the start, he said: "It's really difficult if you've already got a system, and you've already put these places out of business."

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