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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?

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

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.