Greater Greater Washington

Despite officials' claims, DC hasn't reached universal pre-K

Just a few years after setting a goal of "universal" pre-kindergarten, DC education officials claim they reached it. But many parents are still getting turned away at their local schools. Do we really have universal pre-K?


Photo by cafemama on Flickr.

Local auditors and independent reports conclude that the answer is no. The problem is worst east of the Anacostia, but reaches all wards. This matters because while officials claim "mission accomplished," they aren't spending available money to expand pre-K when, in fact, kids need it.

DC needs to survey parents to better understand pre-K needs and set clearer, realistic goals. The DC Council should also create an education committee to better oversee and monitor this and other education needs.

The DC Council unanimously passed legislation in 2008 "to make pre-k universally available" by 2014. Then-chairman Vincent Gray introduced that legislation, which covered preschool for 3-year-olds and pre-kindergarten for 4-year-olds, and campaigned heavily on the issue.

DC's Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) then announced that they had reached universal pre-K in September 2010, 4 years ahead of schedule and a couple weeks before the election that brought Gray into the mayor's office.

What is "universal pre-K?"

There is no clear definition for "universal pre-K." But whatever it is, auditors don't believe DC has yet achieved it. A 2011 pre-K capacity audit does not say that pre-K is universally available. Neither does the 2009 audit, the only other audit that has been done despite a mandate in the law to do an audit every year.

Instead, the 2011 pre-K capacity audit says that "the District is still striving to meet its goal to provide high-quality pre-K programs to all three- and four-year-old children by 2014." (p. 23)

OSSE spokesman Marc Caposino said, "In our view we have achieved universal pre-K in the District based on the fact that we know that every family that wants a slot for their child has access to one." However, Caposino was unable to say how OSSE knows this is true.

The Assistant Superintendent for Early Childhood Education, Maxine Maloney, has an even more curious definition for universal pre-K. She said, "A district reaches universal pre-K when every school that can offer pre-K offers at least one class."

When pressed that this is not the definition of universal pre-K in Gray's legislation, Maloney insisted that early childhood education experts accept her "supply side definition," and that Atlanta and West Virginia used it in their universal pre-K campaigns.

Outside reports are skeptical

To claim universal pre-K, OSSE has misrepresented auditors' findings. One blatant example is the State of Preschool 2011 report by the National Institute for Early Education Research, released in April 2012. The report provided pre-K enrollment estimates for each state and DC.

Using data provided by OSSE, the NIEER report showed a hard-to-believe enrollment rate of 98% of 4-yr-olds for 2009-2010. That was so hard to believe that in their 2010-2011 report, NIEER refused to use OSSE's enrollment data.

"We're not convinced" about OSSE's numbers, said NIEER Director Dr Steven Barnett. He said, "We're not saying that we dispute their numbers, but our own knowledge level is not enough to support their conclusion."

That didn't stop OSSE from issuing a press release saying that NIEER's report "praised [OSSE] for administering statewide early childhood education programming...to 98 percent of 4 year-olds...during the 2010-2011 school year."

However, NIEER says it did no such thing, and the press release included no quotes from NIEER staff. Dr Barnett says NIEER communicated their misgivings about the data to OSSE. OSSE spokesperson Caposino disputes this.

Pre-K is not universal enough

Whatever technical definition one uses, parents know that pre-K is not available enough. Many are finding their kids turned away from local schools.

Telling parents that there is universal pre-K is like telling Metro riders that 90% of trains are on time. There may be a contrived technical definition that could make the claim true, but reality suggests otherwise.

The 2011 audit recommends expanding capacity in wards that are over-capacity and in wards with long waiting lists. Ward 7 pre-K programs are the most over-capacity at 111%, and Ward 8 has the most programs, 20, with waiting lists.

WardEst.pop. 3-4 y.o.EnrolledCapacityCapacity utiliz.Num. of programsNum progs. w/waitlists% progs. w/waitlists
11,4749811,11887.75%171488.2%
2856526497105.84%10770.0%
31,43034636495.05%8787.5%
42,0251,5371,53699.9%231669.5%
51,5811,4541,48398.04%251352.0%
61,6521,6851,70598.83%211261.9%
72,0151,7021,532111.1%231465.2%
82,7761,6601,73295.84%232071.5%
Total13,8099,8919.96799.2%15510970.3%

DC isn't spending money to expand pre-K

The 2011 audit makes some spending recommendations, such as $3.3 million to accommodate 5% of students on waiting lists or $1.5 million to accommodate 5% of students on waiting lists in the most over-capacity wards. But when the DC Council budgeted $6 million to expand pre-K, OSSE left those funds unspent.

At a hearing this past Februrary, a representative of the Office of the Chief Financial Officer claimed that the reason OSSE hasn't spent the money is because DC has already achieved universal pre-K. "We didn't need all of these funds in order to hit universal pre-K for all 3- and 4-year olds," he said, and this year's budget has cut that money entirely.

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Quality also must still improve

Even if there were adequate availability for every 3- and 4-year old desiring a pre-K slot, the Pre-K Expansion and Enhancement Act of 2008 limits qualifying pre-K programs to those that meet new "high quality standards" to be determined by OSSE.

In fact, half of the legislation addresses quality, requiring that pre-K programs meet new quality standards by 2014 or lose their license. The legislation provides grants for programs that fall short of these standards.

When asked whether any pre-K programs currently fall short of the new standards that will be used in 2014 to de-license programs, Assistant Superintendent Maloney responded, "we do not have programs who are not meeting quality standards."

Using OSSE's "Going for the Gold" ratings of Bronze, Silver, and Gold, Maloney said, "all our Pre-K programs are Gold programs with the exception of two whom are on their way to Gold." But it strains credulity to believe that now-Mayor Gray would have written half of his pre-K legislation to address a problem that doesn't exist.

What can be done?

Many studies show that investments in early childhood education reap a tremendous return to society. They improve children's success in later grades, reduce crime, and cut joblessness and poverty. To achieve these returns, we need to treat universal pre-K as a responsibility to our children, not as a political talking point.

The DC Council and OSSE can take several concrete steps to get back on track on pre-K.

Abandon the "mission accomplished" pretense. Education officials seem to have gotten stuck in a trap. They likely claimed pre-K was universal before the election in an effort to boost then-Mayor Adrian Fenty. Now that they've made the claim, it's hard to back away.

Whatever one calls it, pre-K is not as available as it needs to be. OSSE should admit that, then set a standard which it can clearly define, and for which it can measure progress. The DC Council should ensure that this is the right standard.

Survey parents about pre-K demand. The 2011 audit says, "The number of children seeking access to pre-K for whom pre-K is not available would ideally be determined through a household survey of parents of 3- and 4-year-old children living in the District." (p. 16)

The audit says this was not done "due to time and budget constraints." The 2012 pre-K capacity audit is being conducted right now. OSSE should halt it and add in a survey component. Otherwise, it has no way to know how many parents want to send their kids to pre-K but can't.

Create an education committee of the DC Council. Holding OSSE accountable requires resources to do research. Today, education is part of the Committee of the Whole, but the chairman's staff have their energy spread across too many topics. Of the 16 agencies the Committee of the Whole oversees, only 4 deal with education.

Education is of paramount importance to the future of our city. These 4 agencies need to be the sole focus of a single committee staff.

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Celine Tobal works in the field of education where she focuses on improving educational outcomes for all students and is pursuing an MBA at George Washington University. She has an Ed.M in Education Policy and Management from Harvard Graduate School of Education and a B.A from Haverford College. 
Ken Archer is CTO of a software firm in Tysons Corner. He commutes to Tysons by bus from his home in Georgetown, where he lives with his wife and son. Ken completed a Masters degree in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America. 

Comments

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Many are finding their kids turned away from local schools.

I'm curious: Are slots available to kids at other DCPS schools that are *not* their "local school"? While it seems a stretch to say that "a district reaches universal pre-K when every school that can offer pre-K offers at least one class", it's equally disingenuous to say that we haven't achieved universal pre-K until every parent gets to put their child into whichever program they want, regardless of how many total slots are available.

by oboe on Jun 11, 2012 1:07 pm • linkreport

Is that table from the audit?

And how does it define pre-K program? Does that include only DCPS and Charter schools, or does it also include private daycare?

by goldfish on Jun 11, 2012 1:09 pm • linkreport

Oboe,
There are not slots available for kids at the DCPS schools that are not the child's "local" school.

by Celine on Jun 11, 2012 1:17 pm • linkreport

great reporting, guys!

by Geoffrey Hatchard on Jun 11, 2012 1:22 pm • linkreport

Is that table from the audit? And how does it define pre-K program? Does that include only DCPS and Charter schools, or does it also include private daycare?

That table is from the 2011 pre-K capacity audit. It includes DCPS and charter pre-K programs, as well as licensed pre-K programs run by community-based organizations. It does not include private daycare, as that is private (this must be public, e.g. free) and is a daycare that is not licensed against an early children education facility.

by Ken Archer on Jun 11, 2012 1:26 pm • linkreport

Are slots available to kids at other DCPS schools that are *not* their "local school"?

Celine's right. The problem is not just one's local school. Notice Ward 7, for example, which is at 111% capacity. The conclusive answer would come in the form of a survey, which the auditor wanted to do, but apparently OSSE couldn't afford it even though they left $6 million in early childhood budget unspent the year of the audit.

by Ken Archer on Jun 11, 2012 1:35 pm • linkreport

@oboe--

My reading of the DCPS Lottery FAQ suggests that while it is in principle possible for there to be out-of-boundary PS/PK enrollments, it is unlikely. All interested in PS or PK need to enter the lottery, and after numbers are drawn, they go through the list offering seats to in-boundary kids. If they should not fill up all the slots with in-boundary kids, they'll go back to the top of the list and start offering slots to out-of-boundary kids. (In both steps, they give preference first for siblings of already-enrolled kids.)

I would imagine that every once in a while, someone applies to all the schools, comes up far down on their local school but very high up on an out-of-boundary school that, by some demographic quirk, has a few slots left for out-of-boundary kids. But the sense I get is that, in practice, all the slots and a good deal down in the wait list are in-boundary.

I would think a good metric to determine whether they actually achieve "universal" PS/PK would be whether or not there are any in-boundary kids left on wait lists.

by thm on Jun 11, 2012 1:39 pm • linkreport

I would think a good metric to determine whether they actually achieve "universal" PS/PK would be whether or not there are any in-boundary kids left on wait lists.

That's a good idea. Unfortunately, while lotteries for DCPS are run centrally, wait lists are managed by individual schools. Charter lotteries and wait lists are managed by individual schools. There would have to be some degree of centralization of wait list management to do this. But it's a good idea.

by Ken Archer on Jun 11, 2012 1:47 pm • linkreport

There are not slots available for kids at the DCPS schools that are not the child's "local" school.

The chart in your post disagrees. It states that capacity is 9,967, and enrollment is 9,891. This doesn't address the issue of where those open slots are, but appears that therre are (or were) open slots - 76, to be precise.

@thm: At popular Ward 3 schools, there are in-bound kids who don't get in to prek, as well as siblings of OOB kids.

by dcd on Jun 11, 2012 3:10 pm • linkreport

@dcd makes a good point about enrolled versus applied. Also, "Est.pop. 3-4 y.o." is something of a distraction in this context, since not everyone is interested in sending their kid to DCPS pre-school--or pre-school at all, for that matter.

There are popular Ward 6 schools where the siblings of OOB kids aren't getting in to a given school's pre-K program. But from what I've read and observed, usually accommodations are made for in-boundary kids.

Very well-written piece though. Good work...

by oboe on Jun 11, 2012 3:44 pm • linkreport

I know that at my neighborhood school (Ross), some people who live in-boundary aren't able to get their kids into pre-K. So that's at least one more example of where in-boundary kids aren't getting in.

by David Alpert on Jun 11, 2012 3:52 pm • linkreport

@David Alpert,

I wonder if any spots are available at Marie Reed, Ross, Thompson, etc... Those are all less than a mile away. They could all be full as well, but that gets back to my point that "parents not getting into their local school" shouldn't necessarily be the litmus test of whether we've achieved universal pre-K.

by oboe on Jun 11, 2012 4:31 pm • linkreport

I think the article is a bit misleading; many daycares recieve OSSE money though the Pre-K Program Assistance grants. Their pre-k services are free to residents that qualify for subsidies, and most are accredited prek programs under the same guidelines as public schools (NAEYC, etc). I also think that it's a bit slanted to keep this out of the conversation, as many parents are ready to send their non potty trained 3 year old to a public school.

by DC Parent on Jun 11, 2012 4:41 pm • linkreport

oboe: I assume you mean Francis-Stevens on that list and not Ross, since Ross is the one that's close.

I don't know the answer. I think this would be good data for DCPS and OSSE to release, or a council committee to ask for. If they can get past the claim that pre-K is universal, then maybe there can be a serious conversation about where pre-K is at and where it needs to be.

by David Alpert on Jun 11, 2012 4:43 pm • linkreport

"parents not getting into their local school" shouldn't necessarily be the litmus test of whether we've achieved universal pre-K

No one is saying that. Many of the wards have an entire ward that is at or above capacity.

But even looking at the entire city, 76 free spaces around the city's 155 pre-K programs is obviously not universal.

Also, many of those 76 free spaces aren't actually available. The audit was done at the end of the 2010-2011 school year (unlike the OSSE enrollment audit which is done in Oct) and the auditor said a problem with this is that schools don't contact people on waiting list when students leave in 2nd half of the year.

by Ken Archer on Jun 11, 2012 4:43 pm • linkreport

But even looking at the entire city, 76 free spaces around the city's 155 pre-K programs is obviously not universal.

I don't get this point. Leaving aside problems with not callign wait-listed parents for open slots, which certainly needs to be addressed, if there are open slots in pre-K, that means that kids could go, and don't. That seems to be a facially plausible definition of universal pre-K. Obviously, geography plays a large role in this, and some of the capacity issues should be ironed out. But if you're using wards as the appropriate geographic unit (and I don't necessarily think that's the best way to go about it), it's only an issue in Wards 2 and 7.

On a separate note, autoplaying video files in posts are REALLY annoying.

by dcd on Jun 11, 2012 5:35 pm • linkreport

@Ken Archer,

I'm not trying to rebut the thesis of your article, just raising some of the questions that popped out at me. For example, in my daughter's school, when the number of in-boundary applicants exceeded the "capacity", they added another PK-4 class. If that's common practice, then it's perfectly natural that most schools are "at or above capacity". Something (say, a balloon) that expands as you fill it is always "at capacity".

What I'd like to see is some evidence that large numbers of kids are being denied reasonable placement in the PS/PK system: Not that they wanted to send their kid to Brent but were denied, and they subsequently turned down a placement at JO Wilson.

Again, I'm only going by my limited personal experience, and I'm willing to believe the city's handling of PS/PK could be better. Just saying there are a couple of holes here.

by oboe on Jun 11, 2012 5:43 pm • linkreport

dcd: Sorry, I didn't realize it was autoplaying. I have a Firefox extension (Flashblock) which stops Flash and Silverlight from running on web pages until/unless I click to activate them. I've changed it so I think it now doesn't autoplay. Please let me know if it's still happening for you.

oboe: I think your points are right but would disagree with calling them "holes." I tell prospective contributors that blogging is the start of a conversation, not the end, and that posts aren't supposed to be the final word on every aspect of a subject.

The fact is that OSSE's own auditors don't think they have universal pre-K, but it's true that there's no real good definition. Maloney's doesn't really make sense. So we need data and a better definition. I hope Celine's and Ken's article triggers the conversation to get this information.

by David Alpert on Jun 11, 2012 5:51 pm • linkreport

Leaving aside problems with not callign wait-listed parents for open slots, which certainly needs to be addressed

The point there isn't that pre-K programs need to start calling wait-listed parents when spots free up in 2nd half of the year, the point is that these aren't available slots at all. How many of the 76 available slots in the city's 155 programs opened up in 2nd half of year? We don't know because the audit isn't done in October, and because OSSE won't fund a household survey.

by Ken Archer on Jun 11, 2012 5:54 pm • linkreport

The point there isn't that pre-K programs need to start calling wait-listed parents when spots free up in 2nd half of the year, the point is that these aren't available slots at all. How many of the 76 available slots in the city's 155 programs opened up in 2nd half of year? We don't know because the audit isn't done in October, and because OSSE won't fund a household survey.

You may be right that there are no spots at the beginning of the school year - hell, you probably are right - but you simply can't say, "we don't know how many spots opened up in the second half of the year," and also unequivocally state in the same paragraph "point is that these aren't available slots at all." If you don't know, you don't know.

@ David: Thanks, it's fixed.

by dcd on Jun 11, 2012 6:04 pm • linkreport

Bottom line: if this data is to be believed, there ARE enough pre-K slots in DC. The difficulty of getting a slot is due to the perversions of the lottery system. Having played that system a few times, this sorta rings true.

The alternative: in the olden days when kids ONLY went to the in-boundary school, people did not have to contend with the mysteries of the lotteries, and the slots were assured.

I agree with the premise of the post: better data is needed.

by goldfish on Jun 12, 2012 8:50 am • linkreport

A couple of experiences from my local school. You only get on the wait list if you apply during the lottery. This doesn't count families that weren't aware they could apply at the time of the lottery. This means the number who aren't getting placements who want one is can be under counted. The second is that the lottery system creates advantages to the well connected. If you didn't know that you needed to sign your kids up for a spot back in January or February you don't have a spot and aren't counted as having unmet need. Children from the highest need families who are likely to benefit the most from this policy may be the people least likely to be getting placements.

Also having a wait list doesn't mean you'll get slots. My school had families on the wait list two years in a row and was not allowed to add 3 year old slots.

by Mary Melchior on Jun 13, 2012 1:10 am • linkreport

@ Mary Melchior: Parents asleep at the switch is the principal shortcoming with the lottery. Many parents of 2-year-olds are loaded down with day-to-day concerns and don't wake up to school placement (which starts in Oct-November) until too late. To reach these people, DCPS and the charters need to do a better job of getting the word out -- such as school information night -- which was packed, but nevertheless should be MUCH larger and attended.

Only then will this sort of data show that there are not enough pre-K slots in DC.

by goldfish on Jun 13, 2012 10:05 am • linkreport

One more thing: how many pre-K slots are taken by people that live in ward 9? There are a number of cars dropping kids off at school with Maryland tags.

by goldfish on Jun 13, 2012 10:18 am • linkreport

@ goldfish; I understand what you mean by parents asleep at the switch, but I don't like the terminology because it implies a failure on the part of the parents. The way information is distributed on the lottery assumes you have an internet connection, very bad assumption. It assumes you are thinking when your child is 2 and 5 months about school 8 months later. It is a small research project to find out all this and not fair to assume all parents even know they have to do it. Used to be your kid was the age to enroll in school and you showed up the day school started at the school closest to your home. Not even remotely the case any more.

by Mary Melchior on Jun 15, 2012 11:46 am • linkreport

@Mary Melchior: the normal way the economy allocates a scarce resource is how much a customer is willing to pay: the law of supply and demand. In the old days, the better schools were in the better, i.e., more expensive, neighborhoods and the school resource was allocated based on money -- that is, ability to buy nice housing. If you did not have much $, you could get into a good school by being first in line. Parents would stand in line all night -- the same as trying to get tickets for a rock concert -- to get a slot at Oyster.

Nowadays, the resource is allocated by lottery. Thus the parents that are most prepared and best able to game the system have the advantage. One cute example: Because it is at capacity with kids from its feeder schools, it is impossible to get into Deal via the lottery. Parents wanting to get their kid into that school rent a closet in Georgetown for the sake of its mailing address and enroll their son or daughter into a feeder elementary school such as Hyde. These on-the-ball parents start to think about where they want to go 2-3 years in advance.

Parents will need to adapt to the new system, which involves a lot more legwork on their part than the way it worked before, which was just show up and the nearest school on the first day of class. Is this any more "fair" than the way kids got into the choice schools was before? I leave that up to you to decide. I am only trying to be accurate in describing the system as it exists.

by goldfish on Jun 15, 2012 12:34 pm • linkreport

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