What Exactly Is Universal Pre K?

A look at Universal Pre K and what it is and how states are beginning to implement it into their educational system.

You see the term mentioned briefly in articles about education. You even hear it talked about by Presidential candidates. But what exactly is Universal Pre-K? And what does it have to do with you? Well if you're a parent it has everything to do with you, and even if you're not.

To better understand Universal Pre-K we need to look at a little background.

School readiness has become the number one goal set forth in the National Education Goals. These goals were established under the Bush Administration and continued under the Clinton Administration. This goal states that "By the year 2000 all children in America will start school ready to learn."

Parents, educators and communities alike recognize the need for quality preschool programs. Parents are looking for programs that are not only safe but that will nurture and help their preschoolers develop traits needed for kindergarten. Educators realize that if we ask more from children in kindergarten we need to help prepare them before they get there. They know that improving the quality of early childhood environments can promote school readiness. Children are being asked to meet higher standards in school beginning at kindergarten and therefore they must be prepared.

Community leaders are also paying attention to published statistical reports that show that 4 year olds in high quality preschool programs show the benefits of it in later years. They are less likely to need special ed classes and less likely to drop out of school. Yet they are more likely to graduate from high school and more likely to be responsible citizens and pay taxes. Taxpayers are also benefited, as those who have had preschool education are more likely to avoid the welfare system and the criminal justice system, thus saving them money.

Universal Pre-K is a movement to provide quality preschooling to all 4 year olds regardless of income. It is a state funded program as opposed to a federally funded program like Head Start. Each state has individual legislation that sets its mandates for the program.

Georgia has become the model for the Universal Pre-K program. 70% of the state's 4 year olds participate in the program which is free to all children regardless of family income. Georgia funds the program with lottery earnings, as does New York State which is also setting goals to provide all 4 year olds with universal access to a publicly funded pre-k education.

Many other states are now implementing their own Universal Pre-K. They are allowing school districts to seek out their own needs as to who should be eligible. For example, in New York State a certain percentage of eligible openings must go to economically disadvantaged, such as families at or below the poverty line and then the other openings may go to children of middle income families, which are usually the ones who have a hard time affording preschool or daycare yet don't qualify for Head Start or social service programs. Again, each school district sets its own requirements as far as eligibility goes.

Although there is no formal definition of Universal Pre-K, in a November 9, 1998 TIME article writer Jodie Morse sums it up best: "Today (1998) 39 states pay for at least one kind of pre-k program. Though admission usually hinges on financial need, a few states are moving toward Universal Pre-K, so called because it provides a place for every child whose parents want one."

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