Why do Bernie Sanders and some of his primary rivals think it’s good for government to fund community-based, nonprofit organizations to educate two-year-olds but suddenly an enormous problem when children turn five and start kindergarten?
Today, December 2, is National Special Education Day, marking the anniversary of President Gerald Ford’s signing of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). As we reflect on the important ways in which IDEA has changed our public education system, I want to call attention to an important and often overlooked component of the early childhood landscape: special education preschools.
Under Section 619 of IDEA Part B, children ages 3-5 identified with disabilities have a right to a free, appropriate, public education. This means that school districts have an obligation to provide preschool services to children diagnosed with disabilities. Currently, approximately 462,383 children with disabilities are served in special education preschool nationally, meaning that special education serves more children than any single state preschool program, roughly half as many preschoolers as Head Start, and nearly 1/3 as many children as all state-funded pre-K programs combined.
Beyond the number of children directly served, special education preschool influences our national early childhood care and education system in a variety of ways. Preschool special education pre-dates the growth of state-funded pre-K, and until relatively recently, most licensed early childhood teachers working in public schools were special education preschool teachers.
As a result, licensing and preparation programs for birth-5 or early childhood teachers in many states are designed primarily to prepare special educators. At the state level, early childhood specialists in state departments of education have played important roles in state pre-K and early learning systems coordination over the past 25 years, but many of these roles were originally created to support and oversee preschool special education — which remains a major part of these system leaders’ portfolios.
And at the federal level, the Office of Special Education Programs funds training and technical assistance for special education preschool and has developed or supported the dissemination of resources, models, and approaches — such as the Pyramid Model — that support quality teaching and child development across a variety of early childhood settings.
In other words, special education preschool is a pretty big deal. Yet it’s largely overlooked in national conversations about early childhood care and education. Continue reading
Of the 11 million young children with working mothers, more than half spend more time in family child care than any other setting. Family child care providers are individuals who care for other people’s children for pay in their own homes, and who are state licensed or regulated.
Family child care providers plays a crucial role in supporting young children’s development and enabling parents to work. Yet their numbers are shrinking rapidly, falling 18% from 2011-2014 and another 21% from 2014-2017. And this decline in turn reduces access and affordability for families who rely on family childcare.
Why is the number of family child care providers declining? In addition to demographic and economic trends, public early childhood policies and funding streams aren’t designed with family child care providers in mind. Family child care providers are often left out of policy and media conversations about education or early childhood, which tend to focus on state-funded pre-K and center-based child care, ignoring the settings where many children — particularly infants and toddlers — spend much of their time. As a result, these policies may create unintended barriers for or fail to support family child care.
That’s why “Creating the Conditions for Family Child Care to Thrive,” a new report from All Our Kin, a national organization that builds and supports high-quality, sustainable family child care programs and the conditions that enable them, is so important. The report outlines a set of principles for policies and early learning systems that create conditions for family child care to thrive, and provides a menu of strategies for how policymakers, advocates, and others can help put those conditions in place.
Why should education leaders care about family child care? Given that many readers of this blog focus primarily on K-12 school reform, it’s a question you might be asking. Continue reading
For a Vox series looking at the “nation’s most intriguing experiments in local policy,” Conor Williams of The Century Foundation takes a deeper look at Washington, DC’s program of universal public prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds. He argues that the investments are already paying off in terms of benefits for children and families, and quotes me:
Nationally, private pre-K education tends to be either fancier, smaller early education programs or larger ones with shorter schedules, lower-quality instruction, and less material support. Access usually comes down to income level. This disparity has led some cities and states such as Boston and Oklahoma to extend public school offerings to pre-K kids starting at age 4 (or even 3). But DC’s program is the nation’s most comprehensive. For instance, Washington state, which began its public pre-K program in 1985, enrolls fewer 3- and 4-year-olds combined than DC, even though the state’s public school system is 12 times the size of DC’s.
DC is “the only place in the country where every family can be reasonably sure there’s a place for their 3-year-old,” says Sara Mead, an early education policy expert at Bellwether Education Partners.
Over the weekend, the Washington Post Outlook section ran a frustrating cover story on charter schools that offered a narrow and biased picture of the charter sector and perpetuated a number of misconceptions.
Jack Schneider’s “School’s out: Charters were supposed to save public education. Why are Americans turning against them?” argues that the charter sector as a whole isn’t living up to its promises, leading public support for the schools to shrink. Schneider is correct that the charter school hasn’t lived up to all of its most enthusiastic boosters’ promises, but his piece flatly misrepresents data about charter quality. For example, Schneider writes that “average charter performance is roughly equivalent to that of traditional public schools.” This is simply inaccurate, as my colleagues indicated in a recent analysis of charter data and research (slide 37 here). The full body of currently available, high-quality research finds that charters outperform traditional public schools on average, with especially positive effects for historically underserved student groups (a recent Post editorial acknowledged this as well).
To be clear, research also shows that charter performance varies widely across schools, cities, and states — and too many schools are low-performing. Yet Schneider cherry picks examples that illustrate low points in the sector. He cites Ohio, whose performance struggles — and the poorly designed policies that led to them — Bellwether has previously written about. He also (inexplicably, given where his piece ran) overlooks Washington, D.C., where charters not only significantly outperform comparable district-run schools, but have also helped spur improvement systemwide. Over the past decade, public schools in D.C. (including both charters and DC Public Schools, DCPS) have improved twice as fast as those in any other state in the country, as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). DCPS was the nation’s fastest growing district in 4th grade math and among the fastest in 4th grade reading and 8th grade math. These gains can be partially attributed to the city’s changing demographics, but are also the result of reforms within DCPS — which the growth of charters created the political will to implement. Over the past decade, Washington, DC has also increased the number of high-performing charter schools while systematically slashing the number of students in the lowest-performing charter schools. When I served on the District of Columbia Public Charter School Board from 2009-2017, I had the chance to observe these exciting changes firsthand, so it was particularly disappointing to see a major feature in our city’s paper overlook them.
It’s frustrating that this biased and narrow picture drew prime real estate in one of the nation’s leading papers, because the charter sector does have real weaknesses and areas for improvement that would benefit from thoughtful dialogue. For example, as Schneider notes, transportation issues and lack of good information can prevent many families from accessing high-quality schools. In cities with high concentrations of charters, such as Washington, D.C. and New Orleans, there is a real need to better support parents in navigating what can feel like a very fragmented system. And despite progress in closing down low-performing charter schools, too many remain in operation. Schneider could have referenced the real work charter leaders are undertaking to address these lingering challenges (more on this in slide 112 of our deck).
Schneider is correct that public support for charters has waned in recent years, due in part to some of the challenges he references, but also because of orchestrated political opposition from established interests threatened by charter school growth. Given the increasingly polarized political environment around charter schools, the need for nuanced, balanced, and data-informed analysis and dialogue about them is greater than ever. Bellwether’s recent report on the state of the charter sector, and our past work on charter schools more broadly, seeks to provide that kind of analysis. Unfortunately, Schneider’s piece falls short on that score.