Ensure Pre-K Programs Work

Despite conclusions in a national study released this week, West Virginia is a leader in getting 3- and 4-year-old children involved in preschool programs. But the question is not necessarily how many children attend so-called “pre-K” classes, but rather, how much they are benefitting.

State officials rightly argued conclusions about pre-K in the annual “Kids Count” report released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Each year, the report profiles various statistics on children’s welfare in all 50 states.

This year, Kids Count reported West Virginia is among the worst states in the nation for enrollment in preschool programs, at 47th. But state officials pointed out the study counted only enrollment in public school pre-K programs for this state, while including private preschools in other states. That skewed our rating unfavorably and inaccurately.

In fact, West Virginia is doing quite well in enrolling 3- and 4-year-old children in preschool programs, in part because of a 2002 law requiring all youngsters in that age group have access to pre-K by the upcoming school year. During the 2009-10 school year, the most recent for which statistics were available, 13,862 Mountain State children were enrolled in preschool classes. That included 1,064 children in the six Northern Panhandle counties, where enrollment has more than doubled during the past five years.

State regulations provide that as many as half the children enrolled in pre-K can be served by private programs or the federal Head Start network, however. While those 3- and 4-year-olds may boost the state’s numbers, there have been questions about how much good is done for participants academically. In other words, are Head Start and other pre-K programs outside public schools providing education – or merely day-care services for parents?

That continues to be a matter of debate. But the federal government, in a study of Head Start done in 2010, came to a troubling conclusion. According to the prestigious Brookings Institute, the research demonstrated “that children’s attendance in Head Start has no demonstrable impact on their academic, socio-emotional, or health status at the end of first grade.”

Mountain State residents are already aware that merely seating a child in a public school classroom is no guarantee he or she will learn. With involvement in the state’s pre-K programs growing rapidly, it is time to look into their effectiveness – and what needs to be done to make them better.