Photo by heraldpost on Flickr.

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.

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 Founder and President of Greater Greater Washington and Executive Director of DC Sustainable Transportation (DCST). 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 lives with his wife and two children in Dupont Circle. Unless otherwise noted, opinions in his GGWash posts are his and not the official views of GGWash or DCST.