Lessons from elsewhere

What we talk about when we talk about ‘universal’ preschool

Prekindergarteners at Casa Azafra in Nashville received a recently from Mayor Karl Dean after he announced Tennessee had one a prekindergarten expansion grant.

Hellen Juarez was excited when she heard Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announce that the city would introduce universal preschool.

“Universal means there will be open slots for those who need it,” said Juarez, a single mother of three whose youngest, a three year old, is not yet in school.

But that isn’t how things have turned out. Emanuel’s plan adds only about 1,500 seats, for low-income families only. Juarez’s local Chicago Public Schools program has a three-month wait to get in, and it provides only two and a half hours of instruction a day.

“It’s not universal,” said Juarez, who decided not to try to take advantage of the city program after realizing how much it would cost her in train fare and lost work time.

Juarez’s experience is not unusual as more school districts and states expand access to early childhood education in an attempt to add learning time at a crucial point in children’s development. Politicians and advocates alike have seized on research that says starting school young offers lasting dividends — as well as on the political expediency of promising a benefit to every voter. As they have, the meaning of “universal” preschool has become, well, not so universal.

“People end up using ‘universal’ to cover the notion that they want to serve more than just poor kids and maybe they want to open it up to all kids,” said Steve Barnett, the director of National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. “But that doesn’t mean they’re going to serve everybody.”

In many places, including Chicago, promises of universal programs extend only to low-income families, but other cities have branded “universal” preschool as being accessible to families of all income levels. Some districts are picking up the full tab for preschool classes, but others, such as Denver, call their programs universal but don’t promise to cover all costs. And many other programs that are billed as universal fall far short of serving every student, at least right now. For example, West Virginia passed a universal preschool bill this year while emphasizing that not all children would be served for at least a decade.

Only a very few districts have attempted to do what New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has done: provide free, full-day early childhood education for every child in the city whose family wants it, regardless of their income. (De Blasio’s program builds off of a decades-old city program, also called “universal,” that served only a fraction of eligible families.) And even there, where universal preschool is limited to prekindergarten, the city isn’t planning to be able to accommodate all families until next year.

That parents like Juarez can wind up perplexed about what “universal” means comes with the territory when securing preschool funding is a political feat, Barnett said.

“It’s undoubtedly confusing,” said Barnett. “If [politicians] started out trying to create a universal program and came up short, they don’t want to stop calling it universal.”

The confusion around the term doesn’t just stem from politicians and district leaders. In Denver, most news reports refer to the city’s program as “universal” preschool and many advocacy organizations have praised the city’s “universal” approach. But the word rarely appears in city-published materials, which instead say the program makes preschool “possible for all four-year olds.”

That may be because cities and states are still in the midst of figuring out what’s possible to do, right now. When it’s used, the term “universal” is often aspirational.

For example, in Denver, city officials gained support from more affluent voters by presenting a program that helps to cover at least a portion of every family’s preschool tuition, rather than fully subsidizing the poorest families.

“I could never have afforded it,” said Samantha Ruiz, a single parent in Denver whose four-year old daughter started preschool last spring. Without aid, she would have had to pay over $1,000 a month for her local preschool. Instead, she cobbles together state aid, federal Head Start funds, and money from the Denver Preschool Program to bring down the cost to just over $100 a month.

De Blasio in New York City largely repurposed what providers were already doing by funding them to extend their half-day programs to a full day. In Chicago, the mayor’s plan is intended to fill in the gaps between what the state and federal government already provide.

“In an ideal world, we’d have universal access for every child and family who needed or wanted services,” said Samantha Aigner-Treworgy, the national policy director for Ounce of Prevention, which advocates for early learning initiatives. “That said, we are in a time of limited public dollars. The way that ‘universal’ has played out is individual communities are looking at what feasible steps are.”

But sticking to what is feasible has left some families disappointed — and unable to secure the early education that might change their children’s lives.

“My family is not the only one that needs it,” Juarez said. “When they said universal, it’s not what I thought.”


Because each state defines “universal” preschool in its own way, it’s difficult to come up with a comprehensive list of states that currently have or are working toward “universal pre-K” or “preschool for all.” Chalkbeat attempted to create that list by researching cities and states, and speaking with the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, Steven Barnett. If you see a city or state missing, let us know.

This story was produced as a collaboration among all news organizations participating in the Expanded Learning Time reporting project.

Early childhood literacy

How to make a good reader? Combine in-school tutoring with hundreds of books for toddlers and babies

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post
Fourth graders at College View Elementary in Denver.

A new literacy program for children from babies to third grade will focus on tutoring students and encouraging reading at an early age as it works with 100 families in the Munger Elementary-Middle School area.

The 3-year pilot program will combine the resources of 80 volunteers, the Munger school staff, and Brilliant Detroit, a social service organization. Brilliant Detroit will house a national program called Raising a Reader, which will ensure that the families receive as many as 100 books each over the next three years to read to babies and toddlers.

“We believe the city of Detroit is turning around,” said former state Supreme Court justice Maura Corrigan, who is spearheading the program. “But we understand that Detroit cannot turn around effectively if the schools don’t turn around, and that can’t happen unless the children learn to read.”

The program is part of a state-wide push to help more children learn to read before a new state law takes effect in 2020 that will force schools to hold back third-graders who aren’t reading at grade level. This year, fewer than 10 percent of Detroit students met that grade-level threshold.

Announced today, the program launches in January and has more than $20,000 in funding.

Munger Principal Donnell Burroughs said students who received the lowest reading test scores will likely be the ones who receive tutoring.

“Here at Munger we want our students to continue to grow,” Burroughs said. “We will identify certain families and students from preschool to third grade and they’ll work with individual tutors who come into the school every day.”

Students will work with a tutor in groups of three for 40 minutes a day.

Lt. Gov. Brian Calley described another benefit of the program: helping students with disabilities.

“Perhaps an unintended consequence of the work that’s happening here is we can identify developmental delays and disabilities earlier for intervention.”

Calley, whose daughter has autism, is an advocate for people with disabilities. Studies have shown that early intervention improves outcomes.  

“We still have so far to go there,” he added. “This is a reading initiative, but it’s gonna have benefits beyond reading.”

Special education has been a pressing concern for education advocates in the state. The Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren issued a list of recommendations for ways to improve Detroit schools in early December. Among them was a priority to fully fund special education.

Plans to continue or expand the program are unclear, and depend on the pilot’s success. The effort is supported by 15 local and state partners, including Gov. Rick Snyder and Raising a Reader.

Pre-k push

Memphis gets back into education game with vote to fund pre-K classrooms

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A pre-K student plays with blocks at the Porter-Leath Early Childhood Center.

The Memphis City Council committed on Tuesday to find a way to invest at least $8 million in pre-kindergarten classrooms before 2019, marking their first big investment in Memphis schools in four years.

The measure, which was approved 11-0, did not provide a funding stream for the multimillion-dollar need, but essentially holds Memphis to find a way to come up with $8 million for 1,000 pre-K seats that the city stands to lose with the expiration of a major federal grant in 2019.

Councilwoman Janis Fullilove recused her initial yes vote without comment.

Councilman Kemp Conrad, who introduced the resolution, told his fellow council members that this measure is a way for the city to once again fund programs that help children. Tuesday’s vote marks the first new money for  Memphis classrooms since 2013 when city and county school systems merged.

“We can make a statement, a formalized action to the mayor who is very supportive of this issue, as a policy-making body,” Conrad said. “We’re making a statement to other funding bodies, Shelby County Schools, the Shelby County Commission and private entities that the city can come to the table with money.”

At an executive session two weeks ago, Mayor Jim Strickland said he supported the initiative and that the seats could mean the difference in children developing the reading skills they need by third grade to be successful in school.

Councilman Bill Morrison, a former Memphis teacher, brought forth an amendment before the vote that would have expanded the measure to also guarantee funding for schools beyond pre-K, such as after-school programs and career and technical training. However, he withdrew his amendment after Councilman Berlin Boyd suggested he bring the issue as a separate resolution in the future.

Currently, about 7,420 of the city’s 4-year-olds attend free school programs, and a coalition of nonprofit groups led by Seeding Success has been pushing to maintain — and even grow — the number of free, needs-based pre-K seats in Memphis. The group estimates that about 1,000 additional seats are needed to offer free pre-K to all who need it.

Mark Sturgis, the executive director of Seeding Success, told Chalkbeat after the meeting that the council vote will spur further collaboration between private and public funders to bolster pre-K in Memphis. Seeding Success will help to lead a closed-door meeting tomorrow between City Council members, Shelby County Commissioners and philanthropic and private donors.

“Now, it’s about leveraging the momentum from tonight with coordinated conversations,” Sturgis said. “We have to build the infrastructure to do this right. It’s all about creating quality pre-K.”

Charles Lampkin, a Memphis parent whose three sons were students in pre-K classrooms, said during public comment that the free early education made a big impact on this family’s life.

“My (now) first-grader is reading on grade-level and above and my kindergartener is at grade level,” he said, adding that his third son was currently enrolled in pre-K classes at Porter-Leath. “I don’t know what my children would have been like if they did not have that benefit, where they would be in terms of performance. There’s a lot of disparity here with our children. Fortunately for me, my children have benefited.”