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In Senator Manchin’s home state, Universal Pre-K is already a reality

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Universal, free kindergarten is one of the most popular measures in President Biden’s social safety net law, at least according to polls.

It also appears to be one of the bill’s tastiest elements for Senator Joe Manchin, a key moderate Democrat who has pushed for a drastic cut of the $3.5 trillion price tag. While Mr. Manchin has repeatedly expressed concern about spending on paid leave, childcare and child tax credits, he has said he is “all in” for the purpose of universal pre-K.

That may be because all 4-year-olds in his home state, West Virginia, already have access to free public preschool. Considered a national model, West Virginia’s program was indeed partially rolled out during Mr. Manchin’s time as governor, from 2005 to 2010, with bipartisan support.

But the state’s program also shows why rolling out universal pre-K nationally could be bumpy. West Virginia faced challenges in funding, staffing, and finding physical space — and it took not only years, but a decade to come into being. There is also disagreement about the program’s impact on the state’s historically low academic performance.

Policymakers say kindergarten has become an accepted part of the public education system in West Virginia. More than two-thirds of 4-year-olds registered last year.

The program “is an example of what people say they want to do,” said W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research.

West Virginia has one of the highest poverty rates for children and families in the nation, and one of the lowest median household incomes. But the availability of the program to all families regardless of ability to pay helped make it popular.

That’s because even professional families in the state, which is mostly rural, have struggled to find quality early childhood education.

Lloyd G. Jackson II, a former Democratic state senator who played a pivotal role in drafting the program, recalled that his wife would drive two hours a day to take their sons, now in their thirties, to kindergarten. .

“Out of 55 counties in West Virginia, I think in two-thirds there would have been no entry — no matter how much money you had,” said Mr. Jackson.

That lack of preschools contributed to the long rollout. The state legislature enacted universal access to pre-K in 2002; the program did not come into full effect until 10 years later.

Other states share this problem. About 60 percent of rural Americans live in communities that are considered “childcare deserts” because of a shortage of licensed childcare facilities and pre-K seats.

“It’s hard for politicians to say they’ve put us on a 20-year trajectory, but that’s really the lesson of places like West Virginia,” said Professor Barnett. “At the current rate, it would take 100 to 150 years to have a universal kindergarten. If you did it in 50 years, that would be a huge acceleration. If you could do it in 20, that would be great.”

In recent years, the West Virginia legislature, which has shifted from Democratic to Republican control, has placed less emphasis on expanding the program — to serve, say, all 3-year-olds, as the Biden plan would — and more on priorities such as setting up charter schools and savings accounts for education.

Therefore, proponents hope to seize Washington’s current interest in kindergarten. But other early childhood education experts have warned that the president’s plan to spend money on wealthier families removes the opportunity to improve programs for students with greater needs — by paying teachers more or extending the school day, for example. to better fit the parents’ work schedules.

And some question pouring money into pre-K, pointing out that the years from birth to age 3 may be more critical to brain development and closing future gaps in academic achievement.

“You won’t find a brain researcher in the country who thinks going to school when you’re 4 instead of 5 is going to be a game changer for kids,” said Katharine B. Stevens, a former early childhood researcher. affiliated with the American Enterprise Institute, a center-right think tank.

The dollars could be better spent, she said, on improving prenatal care, helping mothers develop their parenting skills and providing quality childcare for underprivileged babies and toddlers.

Kindergarten students who participated in the West Virginia preschool program showed more advanced math, reading and language skills, according to a 2018 study. But the case for longer-term academic benefits is harder to make.

Adam Kissel, a senior fellow at the Cardinal Institute for West Virginia Policy, a conservative think tank, said the existence of universal pre-K in the state of West Virginia didn’t stop it from showing persistently low fourth-grade performance. in reading and math.

But West Virginia educators pointed to other advantages of the pre-K state approach. One of the unusual features of the program is that it serves children eligible for Head Start, the federal preschool program for low-income families, alongside students from middle-class and affluent families, often in the same classrooms.

At Brookhaven Elementary School in Morgantown, five of Allison Stump’s 13 preschoolers qualify for Head Start and receive additional support. But all of her students benefit from the program’s play-based, hands-on curriculum and the opportunity to be screened early for learning and developmental disabilities, Ms Stump said.

By the time they enter kindergarten, these children will be used to the routines of the classroom. Ms. Stump noted that her job requires thorough training, lesson preparation, and endless amounts of energy.

“It takes a lot of time,” she said. “There’s not much of it sitting.”

The West Virginia program was funded without raising taxes; much of the state has lost its school-age population in recent years, meaning dollars are more easily allocated to pre-K.

While many districts across the country have lost students during the coronavirus pandemic, a preschool expansion in scope envisioned by President Biden would be much more complex to fund. His plan for pre-K, childcare, paid leave and other family support would be paid in part by raising taxes on the rich. Like the expansion of Medicaid, states should also contribute dollars, which some may not want to do.

And any national expansion would face the challenge of finding places to put kids. Some West Virginia students are offered preschool seats in nurseries, where employees earn much less than pre-K teachers who work in elementary schools.

Finding and training enough teachers was a problem in West Virginia, and one of the reasons it took ten years to roll out the program. In New York City, with its wealth of workers and educational infrastructure, Mayor Bill de Blasio managed to get his universal pre-K plan underway in less than a year. But the current tight labor market could make that more difficult.

Quality education makes the difference. Ms. Stump, 26, has a master’s degree and began her career with more than 1,000 hours of student teaching experience.

That training was critical to her ability to work with children like Walker Garver, who has an autism spectrum disorder and is nonverbal. She teaches him sign language and social skills.

Walker’s mother, Carrie Garver, said her son probably wouldn’t go to kindergarten at all if he wasn’t for the public program, as many private schools don’t help kids like him. And the fact that Walker has a place to go during the day means she can get her degree.

Free pre-K is “life-changing,” said Ms. Garver. “And for the child it is everything.”

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