Of the 40 largest cities in the country, only five offered pre-kindergarten programs that met high-quality and accessibility standards, according to the latest annual report from CityHealth, a project of the de Beaumont Foundation and Kaiser Permanente, and the National Institute for Early Education Research. While cities have been stepping up to create local funding for pre-K, the report found that few of those cities meet the benchmarks that make a program high-quality. And just 60 percent, including Houston, enrolled at least 30 percent of the city's 4-year-olds in the city's pre-K program.
The importance of early childhood education has been recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a public health issue. And research has linked pre-K participation with a range of improved outcomes, including better health outcomes, according to the CityHealth and NIEER report. “Forward-thinking city leaders realize that dedicating local funds for Pre-K access and quality improvements can improve the health of their cities," said Ellen Frede, senior co-Director of NIEER, in a statement about the report.
And in the Houston area, public support has grown. In 2018, 67 percent of Harris County survey respondents said they favored increasing local taxes to provide for preschool education for all children, according to the Kinder Houston Area Survey. Support from the state, meanwhile, has been more mixed.
Local research also underscores the importance of pre-K as reports from the Kinder Institute's Houston Education Research Consortium capture the benefits of two years of pre-K exposure compared to one and expose the variability of quality across the Houston Independent School District's pre-K offerings. Like the CityHealth and NIEER report, those reports relied on a set of NIEER-identified quality benchmarks to assess programs, including policies around teacher education level, professional development, maximum class sizes and more. Though HISD's pre-K program had relatively high enrollment, per the report, it met only five of the 10 quality benchmarks, putting it on par with Denver, Dallas and Memphis.
In practice, though, those benchmark numbers vary from campus to campus, according to HERC's analysis of 50 pre-K programs. In HISD, individual campus programs were more likely to meet benchmarks concerning teacher education level and some early learning standard in the curriculum but less likely to have a staff to child ratio of 1:10 or better or teachers with specialized training in early childhood education, according to HERC's analysis.
"These quality benchmarks are meant to be minimum requirements," HERC researcher Erin Baumgartner told the Urban Edge when the reports were released. "But that doesn’t mean that they are all students need."
Within Texas, there also appears to be variation. San Antonio's pre-K program was one of only five in the CityHealth and NIEER report to be considered both high quality and high enrollment. Included in its district offerings is its Pre-K 4 SA, launched by former mayor and presidential hopeful Julián Castro, which offers full-day pre-kindergarten — free to qualified 4-year-olds — coupled with after-school care through four dedicated centers. The program, which is run by a nonprofit controlled by the city, emphasizes bilingual experience among its teachers, according to the report. The bulk of the program's funding comes from sales tax revenue. Castro has referenced the program multiple times since announcing his bid for the presidency. Though it has won praise as a "universal" program, the four centers enrolled roughly 2,000 students in the 2017-2018 school year, according to the San Antonio Express-News, while grant money has been distributed to help improve pre-K offerings across the district.
Four other cities earned the top designation from CityHealth and NIEER: Boston, Charlotte, Nashville and New York City.
“Pre-K is a proven policy every city should employ to ensure all children get a strong and healthy start,” said Shelley Hearne, president of CityHealth, in a statement released with the report. “The good news is that most of the large U.S. cities we studied have a Pre-K program in place, but there is still work to do. In order to fully reap the benefits of Pre-K, city leaders need to design high-quality programs that children and families can readily access.”