prek debate

How a computer program designed for home-based preschool in Utah could get a piece of Indiana’s education budget

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

Indiana lawmakers are moving ahead with a proposal that would spend several million dollars over the next two years expanding preschool. But $2 million of that wouldn’t be spent on classrooms, teacher salaries or picture books.

Instead, it would give parents access to software that claims to get kids ready for kindergarten in “just 15 minutes a day.”

The unusual proposal — which might not survive the contentious budget-writing process — is part of an ongoing debate about how to expand education for Indiana’s youngest students. Indiana already grants low-income families vouchers to use at preschools in five counties, including Marion County. But that program serves fewer than 1,600 kids, and demand far exceeds supply.

To help, Senate lawmakers are discussing how to add funding for both traditional preschool and an online program. But educators and preschool advocates say they aren’t convinced that any software will meet the needs of the poor children that Indiana says need preschool most.

“I can see how a good online program, guided by family in the home, can supplement high-quality pre-K, but it certainly is not a substitute,” said Ted Maple, president of Early Learning Indiana, a non-profit child care provider and advocacy organization. “A skilled preschool teacher would design activities that encourage children to work together, learn how to be part of a classroom community.”

Read: What makes a preschool great: 4 things parents should look for

Upstart, a software program developed by the Utah Department of Education and the nonprofit Waterford, is at the center of the proposal. The program’s website claims that Upstart “prepares children for kindergarten in just 15 minutes a day, 5 days a week.”

Parents and children work for a year with the software, which adapts its instruction based on a child’s progress. The focus is on literacy: letters, vocabulary, basic grammar and sounding out words. Upstart also provides people to check in with the family if they have questions or if attendance falls below a certain level.

Utah, South Carolina, and Floyd County in southeastern Indiana already make the software available. Idaho is also considering the program.

According to Utah’s report from 2016, when a little more than 5,000 kids used Upstart, those kids made gains on literacy tests over peers who didn’t use the program. But the children participating were overwhelmingly white, native English-speakers from educated, two-parent households. Half of the Utah families studied made more than 200 percent of the federal poverty rate, which is $48,500 per year for a family of four.

That raises questions about whether its effectiveness will translate to other environments, Maple said, though Upstart says its program has proved effective with a wide range of students. To qualify for Indiana’s preschool program, a family of four can’t earn more than $30,861 annually, and the state has made poor children its top priority as it began subsidizing early education in recent years.

But Sen. Luke Kenley, R-Noblesville, chairman of the budget-writing Senate Appropriations Committee, said the $2 million investment in “in-home education” would allow Indiana to reach 1,000 more students, potentially in rural areas where preschool options are more limited.

Across the state, just 36 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds are in preschool at all. And nine Indiana counties do not have a preschool provider that is deemed “high quality,” so residents couldn’t participate in the state voucher program even if it was expanded.

Sen. Travis Holdman, R-Markle, noted that the online option would also come at a lower cost. If families already have access to computers, the program would cost the state $1,000 per year, or $2,000 if a computer needed to be provided. That’s far less than the $6,800 full-day and $2,500 half-day preschool grants that the state’s current program typically doles out.

But Holdman also said that the online program doesn’t align with Indiana’s specifications for safety and academics for high-quality preschools.

During an impassioned debate on the Senate floor on Wednesday, Sen. Mark Stoops, D-Bloomington, voiced extreme skepticism about the online program given research showing the benefits of preschool.

“We’re funding (preschool) at a $4 million increase,” Stoops said. “But then we’re taking $1 million of that and we’re applying that to a really untested, kind of strange, virtual homeschool program.”

Kenley, just as strongly, disagreed.

“Your argument that we have studied this to death and we know with absolute certainty that this is the silver bullet that solves all of our problems,” he said. “I don’t think is a foregone conclusion.”

The Senate’s proposal also comes as schools across the country continue to struggle with online education. Kenley himself acknowledged there were issues with virtual schools when he presented his budget plan late last month, which limited funding for virtual schools serving older students compared to the House’s plan.

Today, the Indiana Senate passed its version of the two-year budget, which will head to conference committee for more debate. If the online preschool plan makes it into a final bill, it’s unclear if it will be opposed by Gov. Eric Holcomb, who has said he is “open-minded” about the online education option. But he wants to make sure that the state is investing money in traditional options as well, he said.

“This is a worthy discussion that the Senate has put forward, the in-home option,” Holcomb said. “We need to be increasing the quality facilities that we have throughout the state.”

Planning mode

As lawmakers consider major preschool expansion, Colorado providers want more than just extra seats

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

With Gov. Jared Polis’ proposal for the biggest expansion of Colorado’s state-funded preschool program in its 30-year-history, many early childhood educators are cheering the possibility of 8,200 new preschool slots for at-risk children.

But they’re also asking hard questions about how providers will find the staff and space to create new preschool classrooms, and whether state leaders will reshape the program to broaden its reach and intensity. Suggestions from the field include expanding the definition of at-risk, accepting more 3-year-olds, offering more full-day slots, and rewarding top-rated providers with more money.

These discussions echo debates about preschool quality and access nationally as more state leaders prioritize early childhood education, and as public preschool programs from New York to California attempt massive scale-ups.

Research shows that early childhood programs can produce huge long-term gains for children, particularly those from low-income families. But there’s a caveat: The programs must be high-quality.

In Colorado, Polis’ preschool proposal hinges partly on his plan to offer free full-day kindergarten statewide. That’s because 5,000 of the new preschool slots would be funded with money currently earmarked for full-day kindergarten through a special pool of flexible early education dollars. Lawmakers likely won’t make final decisions on the full-day kindergarten and preschool expansion plans until late spring.

In the meantime, preschool providers are weighing the pros and cons.

One of them is Lynne Bridges, who runs a highly rated preschool designed to look like an old schoolhouse in downtown Pagosa Springs in southwest Colorado. It’s called Seeds of Learning and serves children from tuition-paying families and about two-dozen preschoolers who qualify for public dollars through the Colorado Preschool Program.

While Bridges is thrilled with Polis’ support for early childhood education, she’s frustrated, too, that the state’s preschool program doesn’t recognize top programs like hers with extra funding.

“It’s almost like this high-quality program I’ve created …. It’s my burden,” she said.

Bridges’ program holds a respected national accreditation and also has a high rating from the state through its Colorado Shines rating system. She fundraises constantly to fill the gap between her government allotment and the cost of providing preschool for her at-risk kids — the ones she said have the most to gain from a high-quality program.

“There’s only so much money to be had in a rural community,” Bridges said. “This shouldn’t be me laying awake at night trying to help these families.”

The $111 million Colorado Preschool Program serves about 21,000 preschoolers statewide — most of them 4-year-olds in half-day slots — as well as 5,000 kindergarteners in full-day programs. Most of the program’s slots are offered in public school classrooms, though some are in community-based facilities.

On average, providers get about $4,100 per state preschool slot, though the amount varies based on a district’s size, share of low-income students, and cost of living.

Jennifer Okes, chief operating officer at the Colorado Department of Education, said the state’s finance formula allocates preschools half per student of what’s earmarked for first- through 12th-graders.

That formula doesn’t account for preschool quality, she said.

“I guess you could take preschool funding out of [the Public School Finance Act] and fund it separately. That would be a big statutory change.”

A separate state program that provides subsidies to help low-income families pay for child care works the way Bridges wishes the Colorado Preschool Program did, but it’s governed by a different state department and set of rules.

Leaders in the suburban Westminster school district north of Denver, where three-quarters of preschoolers are funded through the Colorado Preschool Program, said Polis’ proposal fits with the district’s own plans to expand early childhood options.

“I’m all for it,” said the district’s Early Childhood Education Director Mat Aubuchon, of the state preschool expansion. “I’m just curious what latitude we’ll get as districts.”

Aubuchon said if the state funds more slots, he hopes more can be merged to create full-day preschool slots. Currently, state rules allow only a small fraction of slots to be combined.

In addition, he wants more leeway in the state’s primary eligibility criteria, which gives preference children from low-income families, those in unstable housing, or who have speech or social difficulties, among other factors.

“I would like to see a little bit more pre-academic stuff in there,” said Aubuchon.

For example, children likely to be at risk for later reading struggles, based on results from a pre-reading assessment, should be given greater consideration, he said.

Aubuchon said if Polis’ plan comes to fruition, he’d like at least 100 to 150 more state preschool slots — maybe more if districts get additional flexibility to make full-day slots. He said the district will likely be able to find space for additional preschool classrooms.

Christy Delorme, owner and director of Mountain Top Child Care in Estes Park in northern Colorado, would like more state preschool slots, too.

She knows some commercial child care centers aren’t happy about Polis’ preschool expansion plan “because it takes away those paying slots,” but said she thinks it’s a good idea.

“Most parents can’t afford child care,” she said. “The more kiddos we can get into early education programs the better off our society will be.”

Delorme doesn’t have the room for a new classroom at Mountain Top, but like Aubuchon, wants the option to create full-day slots for the children she’s already serving. Currently, the 10 children in half-day slots funded by the Colorado Preschool Program rely on scholarships from a local nonprofit to stay at Mountain Top all day. If they become eligible for full-day state slots, that scholarship money could be rerouted to at-risk 3-year-olds,

One challenge that many preschool providers will face if there’s a sudden influx of new state-funded preschool slots will be hiring qualified staff for new classrooms.

That very problem is what led Bridges, of Seeds of Learning in Pagosa Springs, to cut her program down from four classrooms to three a few years ago. Turnover was high and she couldn’t find reliable substitutes.

With the switch to three classrooms, she also raised wages. Today, a lead teacher with a bachelor’s degree makes about $22 an hour, competitive pay in a community where her workers sometimes used to leave for jobs at the local Walmart. Today, Bridges has no problem with turnover.

Delorme, whose teachers start at $15 to $17 an hour, agreed that the field’s low pay makes it tough to find qualified staff.

“Education in general, it’s hard to recruit, but does that mean I wouldn’t want to expand my program because of that?” she said. “No.”

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.