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What Biden's universal pre-k proposal could mean for families in central Illinois

Students in Amanda Watson's preschool-kindergarten classroom.
Experts say preschool is a critical period in a child's development.

President Joe Biden has been negotiating with members of his own party for weeks over a social spending package he says can transform the lives of American families and children.

The original $3.75 trillion goal was recently cut in half in an effort to appease moderate holdouts in the Senate like Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Those cuts leave proposals like 12-weeks paid family leave and free community college on the cutting room floor.

But one of Biden's key priorities is still included in the bill: universal pre-K. If the measure passes, millions of American families would presumably gain access to federally subsidized preschool programs.

Miranda Lin, a professor of early childhood education at Illinois State University, said that would bring the United States in line with most of the world’s wealthiest nations.

"There’s so much brain development going on in those early years prior to the kindergarten age."
Joni Staley, executive director of Milestones Early Learning in Bloomington

“Universal pre-k is vital, it’s necessary. And this is something that America should be doing,” Lin said, noting that most other high-income countries already offer public preschool.

According to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, virtually all 3- and 4-year-olds in countries like Britain, France, and Israel are enrolled in some kind of formal education. Those numbers are vastly different in the U.S. where, according to the National Institute for Early Childhood Research, only about 60% of kids spend time in preschool.

Advocates for early childhood education say that the period before kids enter kindergarten is a critical time.

“There’s so much brain development going on in those early years prior to the kindergarten age,” said Joni Staley, executive director of Milestones Early Learning in Bloomington.

The preschool years are when kids start to build up important social and emotional skills that pave the way for better outcomes down the road. Staley said the experience is less about formal education than learning how to do things like sit still, listen, and share — skills kids will eventually need to do well in a classroom.

Children who don’t attend preschool often don’t have the opportunity to work on those skills in a group setting, which means spending more time on them in kindergarten. More time on the fundamentals like sitting still can mean spending less time on the curriculum.

The ability to hit the ground running in kindergarten, so to speak, leads to better grades and fewer disciplinary problems. More success in school can make easier for kids to transition into society as adults. And the better students are off as individuals, Staley said, the better society is as a whole.

“It’s a trickle-down effect,” she said.

Defining 'universal'

But when it comes to the importance of early childhood education, not everybody is on the same page. Universal pre-k has its fair share of detractors. And some of the resistance stems from the idea that very young kids don't need to be in a classroom.

Dan Harris, executive director of Illinois Network of Child Care Resource and Referral Agencies (INCCRRA), said that idea may be partly based on the misconception that learning doesn’t really begin until kindergarten. But in reality, “we know that learning begins at birth,” Harris said.

Children can be engaged in learning in all kinds of ways, Harris explained. And most often, he said, a child's first and best teacher is a parent. But many parents work outside the home and will eventually need to seek care for their kids in order to do so. And there’s a difference in the kind of learning experience a child has in preschool versus time spent with, say, a babysitter.

“We want to make sure that their brain is being engaged,” Harris said. “That the adult in the room is engaging with the child and providing opportunities for that child’s brain to develop properly.”

Still, preschool may not be the right choice for all families. Parents may prefer to stay home with their kids until it's time for kindergarten. Or they may opt for home daycare, or time with a grandparent. Harris believes some of the pushback against universal pre-k might be based on the concern that because it’s universal, families will be expected or required to enroll their children.

Harris said people shouldn't be scared off by the word "universal."

“When we use the word “universal” — and a lot of us don’t use that word for this reason — it’s different because what we’re really talking about is making sure that everybody has access to preschool,” Harris said.

Access is what's missing for many American families. The cost of preschool can be prohibitively expensive. According to the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies the average cost of preschool ranges from $4,000 to $13,000 a year.

There are subsidized programs for families that struggle to afford the cost of private preschool. But Lin, the early childhood education professor, said they don't compare to what would be offered by universal pre-k.

“Those programs cannot compete with public pre-k because of teacher qualifications and the resources,” Lin said.

And that’s what on the table for proponents of the universal pre-k program proposed by Biden’s spending bill: equal access and a level playing field in early childhood education.

Sarah Nardi is a WGLT reporter. She previously worked for the Chicago Reader covering Arts & Culture.
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