Article published in The Fredricksburg (VA) Free Lance-Star
Four years ago, Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell was walking the path that Gov. Tim Kaine of Virginia now is walking. He was pushing universal preschool for 4-year-olds as a top priority for state funding.
A coalition of family groups in the Keystone State pushed back hard. They proposed a full-ride preschool voucher to enable children from low-income families to receive the school-readiness help they needed.
The clash of big ideas was one factor in stalling approval of the state budget for months. Finally, a bipartisan compromise broke the impasse. Pennsylvania would fashion a pre-kindergarten program on the model of its successful Educational Improvement Tax Credit (EITC) for corporations supporting local school charities.
This pre-K plan now gives a company a 100 percent tax credit for its first $10,000 in contributions to a non-profit Pre-Kindergarten Scholarship Organization (PKSO) and up to a 90 percent credit for additional contributions up to $100,000.
In less than three years, the tax credit has generated $12.5 million for close to 11,000 scholarships that have been distributed to needy families through the PKSOs. This has been done without another expensive layer of state bureaucracy.
The problem with state-funded universal preschool, said Dr. Ted Clater, executive director of a Harrisburg-based PKSO, is that it “displaces parents and the private sector, the two entities that currently work with these children with good success overall, and with little or no government money.”
Because Kaine is shrewdly proposing to ease into universal pre-K starting this fall with a pilot project for 1,000 children in six localities, Virginia has not yet had a clash of big ideas as Pennsylvania did.
A debate would be healthy.
The report of Kaine’s Start Strong Council in December makes plain that the administration is sold on universe preschool and the pilot project is merely prelude, not an experiment. A wise alternative would be a pre-K corporate tax credit.
It’s true that Virginia doesn’t have a K-12 EITC from which to spin off a preschool credit program, but Virginia could innovate from the other direction: Start a preschool credit, and then expand to a K-12 education tax credit.
Pennsylvania’s K-12 EITC began in 2001, and the state now has 184 scholarship charities helping needy children go to a private school of choice, plus 360 Educational Improvement Organizations that help public schools make sound changes. More than 2,200 companies have contributed $260 million to private scholarships and public school improvements.
The Kaine Council cited Oklahoma and Georgia as models of universal preschooling that is helping children from all socioeconomic levels. However, Reason Foundation researchers found that fourth-grade reading scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress have not improved for those two states, despite the fact that subsidized preschools have been in place long enough to make an impact.
In fact, judged on percentage-point change in reading results between 1992 and 2005, both Oklahoma and Georgia ranked in the bottom 10 performers on NAEP. Oklahoma launched universal pre-k in 1998, Georgia in 1993.
In early January 2007, Education Week’s annual “Quality Counts” report on the 50 states’ school progress yielded even more vivid evidence that the Kaine advisers are looking at the wrong models.
For the first time, the Quality Counts analysts sought to measure not just K-12 achievement but how well each state is helping children progress “From Cradle to Career” (as their report was entitled). They unveiled a Chance-for-Success Index that weighed economic and educational data from the early years, school days, and adulthood.
The results? Virginia was ranked No. 1 among the 50 states. The Old Dominion is the state where children have the best chances for success in life, at least according to these numbers-crunchers.
Oklahoma was 40th, and Georgia 38th.
Now, of course that flattering outcome doesn’t mean everything is perfect in Virginia. It does suggest that the state is getting along pretty well with nursery and preschool mostly a matter of private choice and operation instead of state direction, except for public programs already provided to about 27,000 disadvantaged children.
Kaine contends that offering tax-funded preschool to all 100,000 of Virginia’s 4-year-olds would cost about $300 million a year. But assuming that per-pupil costs for public preschool would be about what they are in other states, the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy has calculated an annual cost exceeding $425 million.
That is a large tab for scant returns. It would be more cost effective to keep the private sector active and lend a helping hand, via tax-credit-generated scholarships, to those needy children who aren’t sharing in the good fortune life in Virginia generally brings.
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