D.C. makes the mark: huge strides in achieving universal Pre-K

A study released today by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) shows that D.C. has made giant strides towards achieving universal Pre-K. Since the passing of the Pre-Kindergarten Enhancement and Expansion Amendment Act of 2008, enrollment of the District’s 3- and 4-year-olds in education-based preschool and Pre-K programs has increased dramatically.

In 2007, an estimated 27% of 3-year-olds and 49% of 4-year-olds in D.C. were enrolled in public Pre-Kindergarten programs. In 2010, those numbers increased to 59% of 3-year-olds and 98% of 4-year-olds – a total of more than 75% of the District’s 3- and 4-year-olds served by D.C. Public Schools (DCPS) and public charter schools in the 2010-2011 school year. Pre-K enrollment grows each year, with the largest increases in public charter programs. Public charters saw growth of 24% just in the past year, compared to a 3% uptick for Pre-K in DCPS.

The overall increase in enrollment, especially in the 4-year-old population, is extremely large in comparison to the national numbers. Nationally, enrollment at age 3 was only 4%, and only 28% of 4-year-olds were served in the 2010-2011 school year. (That’s it!)

But this made me wonder. The NIEER press release notes that some states may have opted to expand enrollment rather than maintain and improve quality – resulting in greater access but lower quality standards. I was curious to hear what the NIEER study found about the quality in D.C.’s programs.

It turns out NIEER was pretty impressed by the District’s Pre-Kindergarten enhancement and expansion program requirements, which require teachers to have a B.A. degree or be enrolled and/or on track to receive the degree by September 2017. DCPS met 8 out of 10 of NIEER’s quality benchmarks, although D.C. Public Charter Schools hit only 3 out of 10. (DCPS currently has 6,092 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool and Pre-K; 4,340 are enrolled in public charter schools.)

Here at DC Action, we have been tracking the development of Pre-Kindergarten quite closely and there are several factors that make it unique in D.C. While many states are targeting low-income children, the push here has always been “universal,” which brings both challenges and perks.

Because the District’s aim is universal access, one challenge is to ensure accessibility to the highest quality Pre-K throughout each ward. We know through our tracking that some DCPS Pre-Kindergarten classrooms in the city have empty seats while others have waitlists of over 500 children. Access to Pre-K in D.C. clearly isn’t universal yet, but we’re on the right track.

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