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Tough Sledding on Pre-K Politics: Why Access and Quality Aren't Easily Divorced

My colleague Andrew Rotherham is an astute analyst of education politics, and his analysis of the significant obstacles facing any federal push on pre-k coming out of tonight's State of the Union is pretty dead on. I would quibble with one point is his analysis, however. Andy writes:

3) There is no center to hold. The basic battle lines are people who think expanding access to pre-K is paramount and those who think improving quality in pre-K is.

Three quick points here:

First, I don't think there's anyone participating seriously in these debates at a policy level who doesn't think quality matters. There are just real differences of opinion on what pre-k quality means: certified teachers? rich interactions? an emphasis on language and early literacy skills? There is real evidence to inform these questions, but there are also, as in K-12 education, adult interests that may be threatened by some ways of defining pre-k quality and may resist that.

Second, there is an argument, with some evidence base, that so many poor children lack any early learning experience and the quality of informal care and other arrangements many are in is so poor that the appropriate focus is on access rather than more intensive quality. Ultimately, I think that significant learning deficits with which poor kids enter pre-k and the political demand that public pre-k investments produce significant evidence of learning results mean that an emphasis on higher quality programs is both better for kids and more likely to be sustainable over time. But the alternative perspective should not be summarily dismissed here.

Finally, and related, I don't think we can easily separate access and quality in early childhood. Ultimately, any effort to dramatically expand children's access to high-quality pre-k programs will require a concerted effort to grow the supply of quality providers for pre-k. But right now the biggest obstacle to growing that supply actually is the lack of access, because it means that there's often no adequate and stable funding stream for quality providers and potential quality providers don't want to enter the space under those conditions.

Ultimately, expanding access and improving quality have to go hand in hand, and to do that it's probably also necessary for the access cart to get a bit--but not too far--out ahead of the quality horse. The key is, again, around how the programs are structured and whether there are both adequate resources and quality standards and real strategies to build the supply of quality providers who meet those standards and can deliver results for kids.

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The opinions expressed in Sara Mead's Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.
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