It’s a fairly straightforward proposition: If better preschools can help children succeed, and charter schools can help improve public education, then why not charter preschools?
Except it’s not that simple. The consensus in favor of universal pre-K may be nearly unanimous, but there’s no such agreement about charters. In fact, preschool education could benefit from the competition and innovation that charter schools are well-suited to provide.
The advantages of quality early education are well-known. Brain growth is 90 percent complete before age 5, and children deprived of intellectual and emotional stimulation at ages 3 and 4 fall behind their peers. Studies show that this “achievement gap” may persist throughout students’ academic careers.
But there aren’t enough preschools to meet demand. In New York City, for example, nearly 20,000 4-year-olds from the poorest neighborhoods had no access to a program in 2013-14, and there were five eligible children for every available seat in Manhattan and Queens. Nationwide, in the 2013-14 school year, only 32 percent of 4-year-olds were enrolled in public pre-K. If local school districts and state education departments can’t keep up with demand, why not let motivated parents and national charter organizations fill the need?
Yet according to a new study by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Bellwether Education Partners — two leading education-reform groups that are often on opposing sides of the debate — only six states are “hospitable” to pre-K charters. Nine states have laws basically prohibiting charter schools from offering pre-K. More than 30 states provide too little funding per student to attract charters into the field, or give local districts a monopoly on all pre-K money. And in 10 states that do make charter pre-K possible, preschool students enrolled in charters cannot be guaranteed admission to their schools’ elementary programs, an uncertainty that discourages charters from expanding into pre-K.
The argument for charters goes beyond supply and demand. If the U.S. is going to spend more taxpayer money on universal pre-K, it should experiment to find teaching methods that will help kids learn when they get to elementary school. Charter schools are good at doing exactly that. The evidence is particularly promising for poor and minority students, who are the children most likely to enroll in pre-K.
Not all charter schools are equal, and charter preschools will be no exception. But state lawmakers can help keep standards high. Not only should they amend laws to allow charter pre-K programs, they should also make such schools eligible for state funding, a common oversight that many anti-charter districts have used to shut out the competition. Charters should also get the money directly from the state and not be dependent on the local district to parcel it out.
Washington can also help, mostly by making it easier for charters to get federal pre-K money such as Head Start funds and Preschool Development Grants. States and the federal government together should equalize the spending gap between pre-K (an average of $4,700 per student) and K-12 ($12,400 per student). They should also begin nationwide assessments of student progress in pre-K along the lines of those required under the No Child Left Behind law. Only then will it be possible to know which methods of preschool education best help children succeed.