Talking about Barack Obama’s hopes for expanding early childhood education (school for 3- and 4-year-olds) Sam Dillon reports in the Times this morning that, despite efforts to make pre-kindergarten available, New York State’s efforts are “far from complete.” How far? Pretty far. There are two areas to pay attention to: access (how many 4-year-olds are actually enrolled in programs) and quality (are the programs doing real teaching or simply baby-sitting?).

Let’s start with access. New York City advocates told me last year that they estimate demand for pre-kindergarten in the city at about 75,000 4-year-olds. Yet the number of 4-year-olds who are taking part so far this year is 54,000. That represents a steady increase from years past, the Department of Education’s director of early childhood education, Recy B. Dunn, just told me in a telephone interview. But it’s still far away from universal — and it’s also below the number of seats the state agreed to pay for this year, 60,000, a package that would cost just over $230 million, Dunn said. The picture statewide is arguably bleaker. Winnie Hu of the Times reported last year that only 38% of 4-year-olds in the state participated in programs.

The city recently extended the deadline for when parents can sign up to January 30. By that date, Dunn said he hopes to corral more parents into vacancies that exist across the five boroughs (a full list is here), but a last-chance get-out-the-word strategy has yet to be determined. If all 60,000 seats aren’t served, the extra state funds will go back to Albany.

Last year, I outlined several reasons pre-k expansion hasn’t happened faster, most of which have to do with red tape attached to state funds. The state legislature’s funds can only finance half-day programs, which last for only two-and-a-half hours a day, so anyone who wants to offer full-day programs, which advocates say most parents prefer, has to find additional funds. The state funds also can’t go towards start-up costs like building space, another barrier, according to advocates.

And expanding access to pre-K could get tougher given the bleak budget situation. Just yesterday Governor Paterson proposed changing the way the state funds pre-k so that school districts would have to handle a lot of extra costs (about $71 million in New York City), and Mayor Bloomberg’s budget proposal would cut funding from 21 day care centers.

A whole other question is the quality of the programs. Frankly, I have very little sense of this, though my hope this year is to get a better idea. (Readers, this is my e-mail address.) What I do know is that people who know more than I do are concerned about raising the quality of pre-K. Sara Mead at New America has cautioned Obama against writing a stimulus package for early childhood without thinking about quality. The Hechinger Institute has chronicled the concerns here. And a report (PDF) issued by the American Federation of Teachers last week offered suggestions for how to make pre-K more educational and more playful at the same time, improving the quality beyond simple day-care.

One thing that makes looking at quality difficult is the overwhelming diversity of free government-provided programs. In the city as across the country, free pre-K comes in a patchwork of forms, with no single agency held responsible for producing the programs, no clear funding stream laid out how to pay for it, and no blueprint for what the programs should look like. Parents can apply to a half-day (2.5 hour) program, the only kind the state funds, or they can also apply for a 6-hour full-day program, which exist only because other groups add to state funds. Some programs are hosted at public schools. Others are based out of one of dozens of community-based organizations scattered around the city, from church basements to storefront child-care providers.

Like I said, I want to look more closely at this. So, readers, please give suggestions. What pre-K programs should we be visiting?