Last month, the New America Foundation’s Early Education Initiative and Federal Education Budget Project (FEBP) partnered to roll out a major expansion to FEBP’s education database. For the first time, the site now includes data on pre-K in states and school districts. In collecting the data, we found states and districts face significant obstacles in collecting reliable, comparable pre-K data.
While data can seem very technical (and, yes, occasionally boring), in pre-K’s case, the struggle for reliable data gets to the core of thorny issues like the priority that the U.S. places on pre-K. In fact, solving pre-K’s data issues could lay the groundwork for a tectonic shift in the perception of early education in this country.
A structural alignment of pre-K programs with the rest of the K-12 system can transform early education’s role in the U.S. and American families’ views of it. Increased access and funding alone are not enough to pull pre-K to the ranks of K-12 education. Instead, the easiest way to demand that structure is by demanding clear, comprehensive and comparable data.
It’s easy to argue that pre-K faces more pressing issues than data, such as quality, standards and access. But now more than ever, we live in a data-driven world. The organization and availability of data informs the structure of institutions, including pre-K programs, and forces policy debates to conform to that structure. For example, nearly everyone agrees that elementary and secondary education is a right for all Americans, and that tax dollars should fund our schools; that the federal government mandates that states report funding, enrollment and demographic information to the U.S. Department of Education is a reflection of how much our country values public education. Furthermore, by requiring states to report funding by school district, our unit of measure in policy discussion becomes the school district. We ask, “Is funding equitably distributed across school districts?” or “Why do some school districts perform better than others?” The organization of the data informs our understanding of how a policy should function.
While pre-K is increasingly acknowledged to be an important part of a child’s education, many of today’s pre-K programs were not designed to operate within this school-district framework. States fund pre-K programs run by public schools, but also programs run by community-based organizations (CBOs), such as non-profit and for-profit child care centers and social services agencies. As a result, it is difficult to obtain data on how many children are in publicly funded pre-K programs within school district boundaries. Elementary school principals often have no idea how many children in their district are enrolled in Head Start or state-funded pre-K programs because those programs often do not correspond to the district’s boundaries, and their data rarely make it to the principal’s office.
Further complicating the issue, both for pre-K and for kindergarten, is the length of the school day. Three hours a day may be the norm in some districts, while a full school day (6 or 7 hours) is typical in others. This makes comparisons across programs impossible, because the duration of the program dramatically changes funding and enrollment calculations.
Another significant hurdle for pre-K data doesn’t even reach the district or state level: Our country is lacking simple data on how many American children are enrolled in pre-K programs in the first place. The question related to pre-K in the American Community Survey questionnaire, which is administered by the U.S. Census Bureau, is so convoluted that we consider the data from it to be effectively useless. Even at the federal level, the U.S. government has no idea how many children are enrolled in pre-K. An easy place to start in elevating the importance of pre-K is for the federal government to gather reliable data about how many children are enrolled in pre-K.
Ultimately, however, for pre-K to earn the status afforded to elementary and secondary schools, data on pre-K will need to be better integrated into the school district structure. This does not mean that CBOs disappear – in many communities CBOs have a long history of providing preschool services for children and therefore offer a level of expertise and quality that school districts may lack. But states’ haphazard approach to tracking enrollment and funding must change.
Structuring pre-K data collection so that it is based on school district boundaries would simplify data collection, but it would also legitimize pre-K. A local superintendent would no longer think in terms of “K-12;” he would think “PreK-12.” Shared funding structures and data could improve the quality of education, and generate a shared sense of responsibility.
The task is not insurmountable. Certain states, such as Florida, have already found ways to align pre-K data with the rest of K-12. Our paper recommends establishing a task force of experts to determine how the federal government and states can work together to create a more “logical, systematized approach to early education data at the district level.” If we want pre-K taken seriously and as equally important to K-12, then we should start with good data