An early learner

In 2018, Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative School District voters approved funds to begin developing a full-day tuition-free preschool program for three- and four-year-olds, building on existing half-day programs.

In the Jaffrey-Rindge Cooperative School District, public education no longer starts with kindergarten.

In 2018, district voters approved funds to begin developing a full-day tuition-free preschool program for three- and four-year-olds. It started with the capacity to serve 12 to 18 students, and since then, the program has expanded to serve 32 students using a lottery system. It builds on the district’s existing half-day preschool program and its Inclusive Preschool, a half-day program that serves students receiving special education services as well as other children.

“The full day preschool program has proven to be very beneficial for young learners. Our staff have created a joyful and enriching classroom environment,” Jaffrey Grade School Principal Susan Shaw-Sarles said in an emailed statement. “Daily routines allow students to explore, experience group culture and build early developmental skills.”

According to a 2018 survey conducted by the League of Women Voters of N.H., at least 29 towns in the Granite State have some form of publicly funded preschool, including some in the Monadnock Region.

The concept is not new, with more robust programs already established in places such as Vermont, Georgia and the District of Columbia. But as the coronavirus pandemic continues to ravage the child-care sector, some communities are looking to universal pre-K for relief. A a few places — Colorado and the Portland, Ore., area among them — have even adopted new universal plans during the crisis.

And as the Granite State faces the ongoing effects of the pandemic, which has exacerbated existing gaps in the child-care landscape, officials, advocates and families are searching for new solutions.

Creative short-term responses, community collaboration and federal support seem to be making a difference — but they can’t fully address longstanding issues in the field such as low wages for early educators, high costs for families and an inadequate supply of high-quality providers.

Could universal preschool be part of the way forward?

The universal model

Public preschool models vary from state to state and even city to city, with some limited to families who meet certain income requirements or reserved for specific age groups. Programs that are considered truly “universal” allow any preschool-aged child to enroll, but the term is often used to describe the general principle of offering tuition-free preschool supported by public funding.

Research suggests that attending a high-quality preschool program can have a range of benefits for kids. A 2017 study from the Harvard Graduate School of Education found that children who attended these programs were less likely to be placed in special education, less likely to be held back a grade and more likely to graduate from high school than those who didn’t attend them.

There’s also evidence that universal early education can be good for a state’s bottom line — a 2006 analysis of three states with publicly funded pre-K, published by the National Institute for Early Education Research, found that each dollar invested in universal preschool programs returned between $1.18 and $1.64 in benefits, such as savings on health care, criminal justice and welfare costs.

One universal model experts are following closely was recently approved in Multnomah County, Ore., where voters OK’d the Preschool for All plan to provide access to voluntary, tuition-free preschool for three- and four-year-olds starting in September 2022. Families will be able to sign up for part-day or full-day options, on the academic calendar or year-round, and children will be able to attend in home settings, child-care centers and public schools.

It will be funded through a tiered income tax on high earners, taxing 1.5 percent of personal income over $125,000 for individuals and $200,000 for joint filers to start, which is expected to generate $133 million in revenue in 2021. The tax is scheduled to increase by 0.8 percent in 2026 to 2.3 percent for the lower tier of earners, according to the plan.

Multnomah County Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson, who headed the county’s Preschool for All task force, said the first available slots will go to children who have historically faced the most barriers to accessing early childhood education.

That could include students of color, children from families of low income, children who are migrants and refugees, English language learners and children with disabilities, she said. And as the county builds up its capacity over the next several years, slots will become available to all families who want them.

“We’re really going to be working with a lot of our community-based and culturally specific organizations to help with the enrollment process, because they’ll know the families who have kids the right age, who are struggling to find preschool,” Vega Pederson said. “So that will help us, especially in the early years when we have fewer slots that we’re able to allocate.”

Caitlin McLean, senior research specialist at the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley, said the plan also attempts to address staffing issues that have long plagued the field by guaranteeing better pay for preschool teachers.

According to the center’s research, about 40 percent of center- and home-based early education professionals are people of color, a population that has been disproportionately impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. And 84 percent of Black early educators who work in child-care centers earn less than $15 an hour, compared to 73 percent of Hispanic staff and 75 percent of early educators overall, the research shows.

Multnomah County’s program specifies that lead preschool teachers be paid on par with public school kindergarten teachers, while wages for assistant preschool teachers will start at $18 an hour and increase based on cost of living and a newly developed compensation matrix.

“I think it does look really promising in addressing many of those different areas that I mentioned in terms of thinking about both the learning components and the care components,” McLean said, “and really paying explicit attention to how they’re treating their teachers and making sure that there isn’t this inequality between teachers of early care and education and teachers of older kids.”

The limitations

While the Portland-area program is being eyed as a potential model, Preschool for All is still in the earliest stages of implementation, and universal pre-K initiatives in other states and jurisdictions have produced some inadvertent negative effects.

Jess Carson, a research professor of public policy at the University of New Hampshire, said some programs have had unintended impacts on children too young to be eligible for universal pre-K.

“When you allow more three- and four-year-olds to come into the public school system, then we’ve only got infants and toddlers — so kids who are two and under — in child-care settings,” Carson said. “And those are the most expensive enrollees.”

Because of required staffing ratios, child-care providers need more staff to care for younger kids, Carson said. Tuition from older children has typically helped offset the increased cost of infant and toddler care, she explained, but universal preschool programs can siphon that revenue by drawing families away from private providers.

That, in turn, can lead to a loss of enrollment slots for babies and toddlers.

“It doesn’t often solve what you’re trying to solve when you open up pre-K but then compete with local child care,” said Jackie Cowell, executive director of Early Learning N.H., a statewide nonprofit organization focused on child-care issues.

Though most universal pre-K programs focus on three- and four-year-olds, experts note that kids would benefit from an approach that includes younger age groups as well.

Ideally, said Laura Dallas McSorley, director of early childhood policy at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank Center for American Progress, universal early education programs would serve infants and toddlers in addition to older kids, and those programs would deliver care and academics in multiple settings — not just public schools.

“We really want to make sure that preschool is part of and embedded in the child-care system as part of the mixed delivery, so that preschool could be offered by a child care, including a home care provider, but also by a school,” McSorley said.

In Oregon, officials are trying to avoid this domino effect by offering incentives to providers who maintain their infant and toddler slots after joining the Preschool for All program, Vega Pederson said. The task force that developed the program took lessons from places such as Washington, D.C., and New York City, where providers have felt some of these negative effects, she said.

“This was kind of one of those benefits of not being the first to enact a policy — we wanted to benefit from their learnings,” she explained. “And so as we were shaping out our program, we built in infant and toddler protection dollars into our budget.”

Universal preschool programs can also be difficult for working families to access because they may offer only half-day schedules or operate on an academic calendar, experts said. In addition to a year-round option, Multnomah County will offer free “wraparound care” — before- and after-school options — for families living below the county’s self-sufficiency standard for income.

Could it work here?

It’s difficult to say whether something like the Preschool for All plan could be enacted in the Granite State.

According to Christine Brennan, deputy commissioner of education, New Hampshire has not explored implementing a statewide model for tuition-free preschool. She said the state’s focus is on creating a “comprehensive approach” to early childhood education through community collaboration, an effort supported by the $26.8 million Preschool Development Grant that New Hampshire was awarded in December 2019.

A portion of the grant is dedicated to working with families around best practices for things like sleep, feeding and preparing children for school, Brennan said, in an effort to create a shared understanding of signs that kids might need extra support.

But though universal pre-K may not be on the state’s radar, it is on the minds of early education advocates in the Granite State, according to Cowell of Early Learning N.H.

“Something that has been discussed here in New Hampshire several times is to very thoughtfully partner with the child-care infrastructure that already exists,” she said, “so in other words, not only using public school buildings or programs but also partnering with the child cares in the community that already are there.”

School districts throughout the Monadnock Region are already exploring providing tuition-free preschool.

In addition to the Jaffrey-Rindge district’s program, John D. Perkins Senior Academy in Marlow offers a full-day program for four-year-olds, according to the League of Women Voters in N.H. And Charlestown Elementary School, Walpole Primary School, Marlborough Elementary School, Alstead Primary School and Winchester School offer tuition-free half-day programs, the organization’s survey showed.

The ConVal Regional School District is pursuing an expansion of its half-day Preschool For All program for four-year-olds, with plans to offer a full-day program at a sliding-scale cost for families, the school board announced in February. Several other districts, including the Keene School District and Monadnock Regional School District, offer tuition-based preschool programs, according to their websites.

One of the biggest challenges for the Granite State would likely be finding a funding mechanism for a statewide universal preschool initiative, Cowell said. While Multnomah County is funding its program through a tiered income tax, some states such as Colorado have turned to sales taxes to support universal preschool.

Like New Hampshire, Oregon has no sales tax, so the task force there explored several funding options, according to Vega Pederson, including property taxes and business taxes. But polling ultimately showed that voters were most comfortable with an income tax on high earners, she explained.

If New Hampshire were to develop a mixed-delivery model for universal pre-K — one that includes existing child-care centers and home-based providers in addition to public schools — Cowell said providers could potentially cobble together state and federal funding sources such as Head Start funds, public school dollars and child-care reimbursement funds. But standing up this kind of initiative would still require an “infusion” of federal support, she said.

“Honestly, to have a universal pre-K opportunity for all, which would include working families and include child care and Head Start together — to me, I have to think the best solution is a federal solution, frankly,” Cowell said.

Advocates are hopeful that a new presidential administration could bring new federal investment in the field, and President-elect Joe Biden’s plan for early childhood education proposes federal funding for universal preschool for three- and four-year-olds. Meanwhile, as the country grapples with a surge of coronavirus cases that continues to batter child-care providers, experts say more funds for the field can’t come soon enough.

“We have to build it back better. We have to kind of put into place the real, systemic, comprehensive changes that do build livable wages and do provide stronger access for working families,” McSorley, of the Center for American Progress, said. “And the urgency of the ‘now’ can’t be understated.”

The Sentinel’s “Pandemic Parenting” project is supported by a competitive grant from the nonpartisan Solutions Journalism Network. The Sentinel retains editorial control.