July 28, 2014

The Pre-K–Charter disconnect

By Bellwether

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This fall, charter schools in New York City will offer pre-k for the first time. Charter schools were previously barred from offering pre-k, but legislation earlier this year expanded the state’s investment and allowed charter schools to offer pre-k.

This is good news for New York City, and for places, like Indiana and Seattle, that are looking to offer pre-k to additional students. One challenge with with opening or expanding a state pre-k program is ensuring that there are high-quality providers with enough slots to serve the newly-funded children.

Charter schools seem like an obvious source of additional slots, particularly in states or cities with robust charter sectors and rigorous quality monitoring systems. But it’s complicated. State charter school policy and pre-k policy generally developed in two distinct streams – so even though the two align well in theory, the result in practice is often conflicting policies.

In Ohio, for example, charter schools effectively cannot offer pre-k. The state charter school legislation says that charter schools’ admission criteria can only be open to students between the ages of five and 22. As a result, charter schools receive state funding for K-12 students, not pre-k students. There is a demand for pre-k, however, so charter schools will often co-locate a space with a pre-k program. Yet once children complete that pre-k program, they are not guaranteed spots in the charter schools’ kindergarten programs, but have to enter the school’s lottery, despite having spent a year just yards away.

This disconnect also occurs in states that explicitly permit charter schools to offer pre-k. Up until recently, Georgia students enrolled in charter school pre-k programs couldn’t automatically pass into kindergarten. Legislation* now allows charter schools to give enrollment priority to students who completed the charter school’s pre-k program. While it’s an improvement, there are unnecessary complexities for both schools and parents; assuring enrollment priority is not the same as seamlessly moving students from 1st to 2nd grade. Students are not guaranteed entrance, and schools must orchestrate a new pre-k lottery each year, with the right students at the right weights. New York City takes a similar approach for its charter schools offering pre-k this fall.

Sara Mead and I have learned about these challenges and more while researching the Byzantine world of pre-k and charter sector policy for a paper that the Thomas B. Fordham Institute will publish next year. With recent data showing the appeal of early ed across party lines (slide 11 here), the time is right to prioritize high-quality slots for more pre-k students.

*Links to O.G.C.A. LexisNexis database – search 20-2-2066 for appropriate legislation.

–Ashley LiBetti Mitchel

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