Greater Greater Washington

Education


Auditors confirm: DC's pre-K, while laudable, is not universal

DC's Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) disputed our report last week that auditors believe the District has not reached universal pre-K. But parents are being turned away across the city, and the auditors confirmed that pre-K, while it has grown significantly, is still not universal.


Photo by heraldpost on Flickr.

In a statement, OSSE suggested a fairly simple definition of "universal pre-K":

Regardless of income, if you are a parent of a District of Columbia child of pre-K age and wish to enroll them in a pre-K program, a pre-K slot is universally available in the District of Columbia for you.
However, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that children of pre-K age who wish to enroll are not finding slots. The auditors legally tasked with determining whether DC has universal pre-K don't think it is. And OSSE is not measuring what it needs to measure to really determine whether its pre-K programs have enough capacity.

OSSE is not measuring how many children apply and get turned away

One sensible way to measure how pre-K capacity compares to demand would be to figure out how many kids applied for pre-K but were offered no placement at all. However, OSSE is not measuring this.

From kindergarten onward, any child is guaranteed a spot at the local neighborhood school. Parents can apply for "out of boundary" slots at another school, but often there isn't room. Still, there's always room at the local school, and they will add new classrooms if needed to accommodate the kids who live in-boundary.

That's not how pre-K works. Instead, parents apply for up to 6 of the 85 DCPS pre-K programs by lottery, and the other 70 charter and community-based programs all have separate applications and lotteries of their own. A child could apply for a few programs and get turned down at all of them, and never know if there is a slot somewhere else.

OSSE could collect data on all of these lotteries, identify how many distinct children are applying, and report a number reflecting the total demand for pre-K. But they do not. OSSE did not respond to multiple requests about its audit methodology.

OSSE is not measuring enrollment at the start of the school year

Another way to get some better data on pre-K would be to calculate the enrollment and the number of available slots at the start of the school year. If all programs are full, we'd know there is not enough capacity.

Even if they're not full, some kids still might have applied only for full programs, or they might live in one part of the District and only find available slots clear across town, but it would provide better information.

OSSE is not measuring this either. Instead, OSSE instructed its auditor to measure the number of available pre-K slots in May, at the end of the school year. A few kids leave the program during the year, meaning there are inevitably a few open slots by then.

In their statement, OSSE argues that because there were some unfilled slots, there must be more supply than demand, and thus pre-K is "universal." The logical fallacy is clear. No matter how many people get turned away, if one person drops out mid-year leaving an extra slot, there must be no problem since there are empty slots.

This is similar to arguing that there must be no problem with housing capacity in DC, because there are a few housing units being listed on Craigslist, and therefore every single person who wants to live in DC must be able to, even if some of those units are only temporarily empty because someone just moved out.

Auditors agree pre-K is not universal, and have suggested ways to get better data

The auditor of pre-K capacity, ChildTrends, confirmed last week that their conclusion in the 2011 pre-K capacity audit is that the District has not achieved universal pre-K. Further, they say in the 2011 audit that the practice of measuring capacity in May is flawed:

Since the pre-K audit was conducted near the end of the school year, these vacancies may be attributed to the fact that many schools do not maintain their waiting lists during the last few months of school. Therefore, if a vacancy opened in the middle or end of the year, schools may not have necessarily notified families about these vacancies. Or, families may not have wanted to relocate their children at the end of the school year even if they were notified about availability.
The 2008 legislation requiring that the District achieve universal pre-K mandates an annual audit of the "number of children for whom pre-K is not available and whose parents would send them to pre-K but for the lack of availability."

ChildTrends has suggested surveying parents to better understand how many kids are being turned away. 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 2011 audit says this was not done "due to time and budget constraints." However, the 2009 audit made the exact same recommendation. (p. 36)

Alternately, OSSE could better track the lotteries. DCPS has a centralized, de-duplicated database of applicants to its 85 pre-K programs. OSSE could require that publicly-funded charter and community-based pre-K programs report their applications so that OSSE can compile a single list of distinct applicants to public pre-K programs, then report statistics such as how many total children applied, compared to the available seats, and how many received no placement anywhere.

OSSE didn't reply to questions about these alternative audit methodologies last week. Let's hope that OSSE agrees to halt the 2012 pre-K capacity audit and conduct it with one of these two methodologies. The 9 elected members of the State Board of Education, which advises OSSE, should ask OSSE to do the same.

OSSE's statement is vague and undermines their argument

While refusing to answer detailed questions, OSSE's statement mostly gave many platitudes about how pre-K enrollment has grown and how committed they are to "sharing best practices and coordinating data to both ensure and validate the access, enrollment, development and protection for the District's youngest learners just beginning their educational journey."

They do, however, cast aspersions on the accuracy of our report, saying, "While OSSE applauds media efforts to hold our agency accountable and investigate pre-K capacity and enrollment throughout the District, we must also insist the data on which we are measured is timely, accurate and factual."

We agree. That's why all of the data in the earlier article came directly from the audit reports. OSSE provides different, higher numbers for pre-K enrollment. Ironically, if one accepts their enrollment number and continues to use the capacity number in the audit (the only one available), then pre-K enrollment jumps to over 101% of capacity:

Capacity (audit)9,967
Enrollment (audit)9,891
Capacity utilization (audit)99.2%
Enrolled (OSSE)10,077
Capacity utilization (OSSE/audit)101.1%

In other words, if we were to correct any math from the last article with OSSE's numbers, the conclusion supports even more strongly the conclusion that pre-K is over capacity.

Pre-K is a success, which is the reason to expand it

OSSE seems very sensitive to any criticism of pre-K, touting its many successes. Indeed, bringing pre-K to more children has been a tremendous achievement, one DC should be very proud of.

It is precisely because of this success that DC needs to expand the program. Many parents are finding themselves turned away, but OSSE seemingly insists that cannot be happening, and leaves money budgeted for pre-K expansion unspent. Only if DC can accurately measure the unmet demand can it begin to satisfy it and incorporate it into the budget.

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. 
David Alpert is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Greater Greater Washington and Greater Greater Education. He worked as a Product Manager for Google for six years and has lived in the Boston, San Francisco, and New York metro areas in addition to Washington, DC. He loves the area which is, in many ways, greater than those others, and wants to see it become even greater. 

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Thanks for reporting on this. My child is in PK at a charter but OSSE should be doing a better job of auditing if that is what the law mandates.

by LeeinDC on Jun 19, 2012 11:02 am • linkreport

I am _thrilled_ that you are reporting on this. The education issue is complex and messy and therefore difficult to talk about but I'm really glad to see it covered in a way that might help spark positive change.

by tim h on Jun 19, 2012 11:30 am • linkreport

Super complex issue. But the shortage could just as well be an information deficit as anything else. It's still not clear to me whether the problem is that parents can't get into *a* program, or whether parents can't get into one of the programs they want to get into. There's a big difference.

When our kid was 3, we were still a bit leery about sending her to DCPS pre-school even though we had slots open in our excellent in-boundary school, but if we weren't, we would have played the lottery for one of the well-regarded out-of-boundary schools. Of course, we wouldn't have been able to get into any of them because of the sheer number of in boundary kids and OOB applicants.

So the choice would've been between sending her to "whatever school has open slots" or biting the bullet and sent her to private pre-school for another two years. We would have chosen the latter, and would've provided "anecdotal evidence" that universal pre-school doesn't exist in DC.

Of course, if there was an open slot somewhere in a struggling school in Ward 8 that we could've sent our kid to, but opted not to, one could make a very good argument that universal ps/pk was available, but we chose not to use it.

Either way, the PK/PS process could definitely be improved.

by oboe on Jun 19, 2012 12:06 pm • linkreport

Perhaps they can address all of the families from Maryland and Virginia dropping off their kids at DCPS pre-schools. I walk my dogs by AppleTree Early Learning Center in Kingman Park everymorning and I see a parade of cars with Maryland license plates dropping off kids for free child-care. This is a problem at plenty of other schools as well. My child isn't old enough for pre-school yet, but when she is I'm totally expecting to be denied a spot at this school literally blocks from my house even though there are dozens of people (at this one school) scamming the system.

by logan on Jun 19, 2012 12:18 pm • linkreport

Do you really have any example of a student who has been completely shut out? I follow this very closely (although only anecdotally), and I have not encountered a single eligible child that was actually shut out last year. On the other hand, there many who have chosen other options because they do not like the available public preschool/pre-k option. I agree that the program is a great success and should be even more convenient, but I am very interested in whether there are actual students that are being shut out.

by Danielle on Jun 19, 2012 12:33 pm • linkreport

That's not how pre-K works. Instead, parents apply for up to 6 of the 85 DCPS pre-K programs by lottery, and the other 70 charter and community-based programs all have separate applications and lotteries of their own. A child could apply for a few programs and get turned down at all of them, and never know if there is a slot somewhere else.

OSSE could collect data on all of these lotteries, identify how many distinct children are applying, and report a number reflecting the total demand for pre-K. But they do not. OSSE did not respond to multiple requests about its audit methodology.

This methodology is as flawed as the OSSE method of measuring enrollment in May, for similar reasons. There are a decent number of kids who apply to 6 DCPS pre-school slots, as well as a lot of charter schools, and don't get in via the lottery to any of them. But they are placed on the waitlist, and many get slots over the summer or shortly after school starts. Because of the active waitlists, applicant data is meaningless.

For similar reasons, even measuring enrollment as of the first day of school is flawed - there is a lot of movement the first month of school. It seems to me the best date to measure enrollemnt woudl be October 2 - I think that's the day after schools report their enrollment for funding purposes. Regardless, May is far too late to measure enrollment - there can be attrition for a whole host of reasons, and schools actually have a disincentive to fill spots vacated after October 1 (I don't believe vacancies affect their funding after that date).

by dcd on Jun 19, 2012 12:34 pm • linkreport

dcd: They could measure how many of those kids who get put on waitlists end up getting offers for placement. The point is that you need to look at applicants at some stage to understand the demand.

Please feel free to suggest a measuring system that would be satisfactory.

However, many parents also make other arrangements if their kids don't get in to start with. Some make decisions to move out of DC entirely because private pre-K is too expensive for them. It is sometimes too late. With DCPS, at least they know for sure there's a placement; here, there's no such guarantee.

by David Alpert on Jun 19, 2012 12:38 pm • linkreport

Do you really have any example of a student who has been completely shut out?

I know several parents who applied to the maximum (6) DCPS programs and multiple non-DCPS programs, and never made it off of the waitlist for any of them.

Also, keep in mind that parents can't often wait until October to see if they made it off of a waitlist, because private programs also have waitlists and notification deadlines.

We are considering writing some profiles of families who are turned away from pre-K.

by Ken Archer on Jun 19, 2012 12:44 pm • linkreport

Thank you for highlighting this issue and for indicating that measuring usage in May is not very wise. I remain troubled at the defensiveness of DC Education spokespeople. Of course their methods could improve--ANY method could be improved. The level of pre-K usage is phenomenal and should be touted as successful, even as the methods are improved.
But they take any critique as an attack, and circle the wagons. It doesn't help achieve the goal of universal access to free, quality pre-K for all Washingtonians.

by Wendy on Jun 19, 2012 12:45 pm • linkreport

Please feel free to suggest a measuring system that would be satisfactory.

I thought I did - look at enrollment as of October 2. If you need to measure applicants, measure total applicants v. total capacity. You'd have to drill a bit deeper, but that's a good place to start.

But if someone applies to the six most popular DCPS pre-school programs, as well as the five most popular charter pre-school programs, and gets wait-listed at all of them (and this happens a lot), the only think that's evidence of is that they are unrealistic and/or unreasonably confident. And if that family gets frustrated and moves to MD or VA, that's unfortunate, but it's also not evidence of a glaring lack of preschool slots in DC.

by dcd on Jun 19, 2012 12:50 pm • linkreport

@Ken,

I know several parents who applied to the maximum (6) DCPS programs and multiple non-DCPS programs, and never made it off of the waitlist for any of them.

Right, but without knowing which schools those parents applied to, we can't really evaluate that.

@dcd's take on this is very similar to mine. Here's my anecdote: a couple of years ago, some friends of ours whose daughter was turning three, and who live in Columbia Heights took a look at their local elementary school--which had open slots for PS/PK--and immediately dismissed it. They then applied to the six most sought-after elementary schools in the city. They didn't get in to any of them. They then applied to several charters--and near-miraculously got into Haynes.

If they hadn't gotten into Haynes, they would have moved out of the city. So is this evidence against universal PS/PK in DC?

by oboe on Jun 19, 2012 12:58 pm • linkreport

. I remain troubled at the defensiveness of DC Education spokespeople.

I think they are "defensive" because the DC council thought it would be a good idea to pass a law mandating "universal pre-k", as though waving a magic wand were the best way to enact public policy.

It reminds me of the stupid debate they were engaged in a few years back where the Council came within a hair's-breadth of passing a law that guaranteed the right to a "high-quality education" for every DC child.

The only possible outcome in those situations is a tidal wave of ruinously expensive lawsuits.

by oboe on Jun 19, 2012 1:02 pm • linkreport

I know several parents who applied to the maximum (6) DCPS programs and multiple non-DCPS programs, and never made it off of the waitlist for any of them.

Again, it depends entirely on the schools to which they applied. If they're all uber-popular programs, I'm not sure this really exposes a flaw in the pre-school program as a whole. Unrealistic expectations demonstrate a failing with the parents, not the system. As Oboe has said, DC law doesn't guarantee admission to the specialty charter of your choice, or the most convenient DCPS pre-school.

There's a wrinkle to this that affects preschool demand. Pre-school is an entry year for many charters and DCPS that guarantees admission once a kid reached kindergarten. So that artifically inflates the demand for those pre-school slots. Personally (and I know several families like this), I wouldn't have put my daughter in a full-day pre-school at 3 years old - but we got a slot in a coveted charter, and didn't feel we could pass it up. Absent this entry year issue, the demand for pre-school slots, at least for 3 year-olds, would drop (although I'm not sure it would be material).

This permutation doesn't matter at the most popular west-of-the-park DCPS programs - the so-called JKLM schools - because they're already over-enrolled and turning away in-bounds pre-school students. A good case could be made for expanding those programs, but the schools are already over-capacity, and it's hard to justify adding another pre-school class when it requires third-grade classes to dramatically increase in size, or be evicted to trailers. Plus, the IB kids at those schools aren't exactly the at-risk kids the DC universal pre-school program is meant to assist.

This, I suspect, is part of the reason OSSE doesn't want to change their measures - if they're forced to add a pre-school class at Murch, for example, they'll see it as a waste of resources. Those kids likely will go to preschool anyway, but the parents will have to pay for it, so this is just a subsidy to relatively wealthy (or at least better off) families that aren't the target group of this program. I'm not saying that's right, but it is understandable.

by dcd on Jun 19, 2012 1:08 pm • linkreport

@Oboe: @dcd's take on this is very similar to mine. Here's my anecdote: a couple of years ago, some friends of ours whose daughter was turning three, and who live in Columbia Heights took a look at their local elementary school--which had open slots for PS/PK--and immediately dismissed it. They then applied to the six most sought-after elementary schools in the city. They didn't get in to any of them. They then applied to several charters--and near-miraculously got into Haynes.

If they hadn't gotten into Haynes, they would have moved out of the city. So is this evidence against universal PS/PK in DC?

This is EXACTLY our situation (for a second I wondered if we know each other in real life), except than we intended to stay in a more limited private preschool for the pre-school year, got wind that ELH was starting a pre-school class, took a flier, and hit the lottery (so to speak). Our local CH elementary school (although it is reported to have made great strides in the past 2 years) was not an option, and with the lack of OOB slots at the more well-regarded DCPS schools, it is very, very likely that we'd have moved. (PS - it's likely that my daughter is friends with your friends' kid. Wild.)

@David: Also, keep in mind that parents can't often wait until October to see if they made it off of a waitlist, because private programs also have waitlists and notification deadlines.

There may be some parents for whom this is true, but I think it far more likely that the reason for the move is the failure to get into a pre-school program at a "good" school - which means the kids won't be able to attend that school from K-5. It's got a lot less to do with a preschool slot than it does figuring out the whole schooling picture.

by dcd on Jun 19, 2012 1:19 pm • linkreport

This permutation doesn't matter at the most popular west-of-the-park DCPS programs - the so-called JKLM schools - because they're already over-enrolled and turning away in-bounds pre-school students. A good case could be made for expanding those programs, but the schools are already over-capacity, and it's hard to justify adding another pre-school class when it requires third-grade classes to dramatically increase in size, or be evicted to trailers. Plus, the IB kids at those schools aren't exactly the at-risk kids the DC universal pre-school program is meant to assist.

One thing I forgot to mention (hard to believe, I know) - some schools really can't expand their pre-school programs BECAUSE of the guarantee of enrollment fron K-5. If 20 slots are added in a preschool class, and they're not ALL taken up by in-bounds kids, those kids will contribute to the overcrowding at every subsequent grade. At already bursting-at-the seams schools, this is a significant concern. This could be addressed by decoupling preschool from elementary school, but that's cruel to the kids (spend 2 years at a preschool making friends, but you won't be able to go to elementary school with them), as well as a political hot potatoe (making the minority OOB kid leave a school after 2 years of preschool so a white IB kid can attend - yikes).

No easy answers.

by dcd on Jun 19, 2012 1:53 pm • linkreport

I think it would be interesting to hear the stories if DC parents who didn't get into the 6 DCPSs or the charters they applied to. People could learn more about what doesn't work in lottery strategies. And it's certainly compelling.

But that doesn't mean there were no spots available in the District. We just finished preschool. We didn't have tremendous lottery luck but eventually turned down one charter (that is not popular with middle class parents), one mediocre DCPS, and ended up at another charter. If we hadn't gotten in somewhere acceptable to us, out child would have stayed in a private daycare.

The issue is number of seats at schools that are acceptable options, not lack of seats per se.

by DC Parent on Jun 19, 2012 2:13 pm • linkreport

The issue is number of seats at schools that are acceptable options, not lack of seats per se.

Well put.

by oboe on Jun 19, 2012 2:46 pm • linkreport

@oboe & @dcd

Your points about parents only applying to the quality pre-K programs are good ones.

But's important to be clear that OSSE is not in a position to tell the public (as they are now) that there is a free pre-K spot for everyone, as long as they are willing to look beyond the top couple pre-K programs.

No one can say that, because OSSE won't authorize their auditor to study actual applicants via a household survey to understand their application experiences and placement decisions.

It is hard to believe that the pre-K system is at 101% capacity in October, and yet no parents are turned away due to lack of capacity. How many parents are turned away for lack of capacity, and how many because they were unwilling to consider certain schools (as you describe)? We don't know, because OSSE won't authorize a proper audit. I'm sure there are parents in both camps, but we need to know how many are in each camp in order to know whether and where we need to add capacity. As it is, OSSE appears unwilling to ask this question, because it might expose their universal pre-K claim to be untrue.

by Ken Archer on Jun 19, 2012 3:54 pm • linkreport

I do know people who chose only the top programs and did not get in through the lottery (which should have been expected as inboundary children were not getting in, sort of like applying only to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, getting shut out and saying that their grades were to low for college). In these instances, DCPS found a spot for each person who requested it.

I am in no way saying that this system is good, but I am not at all sure that the problem is as stated. I would rather focus on the real challenges in the system than this issue if it is a red herring, which I believe it may be.

by Danielle on Jun 19, 2012 8:43 pm • linkreport

@Logan Apparently when Cap Hill folks advertise for nannies they include the perk of enrolling your child, if applicable, in a Pre-K program. The former Council Chairman Kwame Brown had hearings on this issue of out-of-state students enrolled in DCPS last fall. The consensus was many DC gov't workers that live in MD have managed to work the system to enroll their children in DCPS through various methods including using relatives in-city addresses.

On a separate issue... to be contrarian don't studies of Headstart, Evenstart, Jumpstart, etc., Pre-K show that by the 3rd grade students who participated in these programs show no measurable difference than their peers who did not participate.

Early immersion is laudable, but is this subsidized day care or real early childhood educational enrichment?

by John M on Jun 19, 2012 10:17 pm • linkreport

Apparently when Cap Hill folks advertise for nannies they include the perk of enrolling your child, if applicable, in a Pre-K program.

I can't say authoritatively that this has never happened, but it has the smell of an urban legend. Do you have an example, say from a "want ad"?

by oboe on Jun 21, 2012 10:48 am • linkreport

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