The Argument for Universal Early Childhood Education
I started my teaching career in Oklahoma in 2003 and have been working in some capacity with early childhood education ever since. I taught pre-K as my very first job in Moore, Oklahoma in 2003. I went on to teach pre-K for four years and then moved up to kindergarten with my last group of pre-K students. Oklahoma is one of the few states that offers universal pre-K, and my experiences there have made me an early childhood educator who believes in early education, especially universal pre-K.
I spent two years in Arkansas fighting for universal pre-K, as that state does not have pre-K in the public school system for all students. Being from and teaching in a state where all children can attend pre-K opened my eyes to the advantages of a universal early childhood education system. I also experienced firsthand children coming out of their comfort zone, engaging in the learning community, and gaining many skills, including one-to-one correspondence, letter, word, and sound recognition, and even some reading by the end of the academic year. Early childhood education is all about exposure and incorporating students’ backgrounds and experiences into what they learn in the classroom—giving children the opportunity to get a head start on what to expect and growing to love school and learning.
In his State of the Union address, former President Obama said of early childhood education, "Studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own. We know this works." (Khimm, 2013). He was talking about states that invest and make educating our youngest children a top priority.
What Is Universal Pre-K?
Universal pre-K is open to all children turning 4 before a certain date in the academic calendar. According to the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), "Universal pre-K means that pre-K programs are available to any child in a given state, regardless of family income, children’s abilities, or other factors" (Rock, 2017).
Teachers in this program are certified early childhood education teachers* with a bachelor’s degree in child development or early childhood education, and the schools are free to the public. In a private preschool, families choose the school and pay a tuition for their child to attend. In a Head Start program, children and families must meet the criteria to attend that preschool. Universal pre-K is the only place where all children can attend, with no qualifications or tuition requirements.
Which States Have Universal Pre-K?
Educational researcher Quinn (2017) explains that very few states have “true” pre-K systems. According to Quinn, “Only three states—Florida, Georgia, and Oklahoma—have what could be called truly universal programs in that they’re available to all 4-year-olds, regardless of parental income.” Quinn expands, “In the 19 years since Oklahoma embraced pre-K as part of its education system, the program has been considered a national model.” According to Rock (2017), “Currently, thirty-nine states plus the District of Columbia offer some form of voluntary universal pre-K, but not every child is eligible. In order to be considered universal pre-K, the program must be offered to all children, no matter the circumstances.” Of course, there are two sides to every story, so it’s important to understand the pros and cons of implementing universal pre-K.
Pros of Universal Early Childhood Education
- Teachers are highly qualified and must have a degree in early childhood education as required by the public school system
- All children can attend
- States fund the program
- High-quality preschool
- Preschool helps children develop important social and self-regulation skills (Stipek, 2017)
- Preschool lays the foundation for brain development and future learning (Stipek, 2017)
Cons of Universal Pre-K
- Lack of research showing that pre-K is successful
- Private preschools lose enrollment
- Expense for states
Experiencing universal early childhood education as an educator in Oklahoma has allowed me to see the benefits of the system, and I continue to support it. In 2008, the Center for Public Education found that Oklahoma children of all racial groups exhibited academic gains. The Center notes, “In particular, the study found a narrowing of the achievement gap for Hispanic children.” It is vital that all states continue to research and consider making pre-K available to all students. It should be a priority and an option for all families.
In July 2017, the College of Education at Ashford University will host the inaugural Ashford Early Childhood Education Conference. The conference is open to the public, and offers sessions ranging from behavior management strategies to DIY projects for the classroom. Explore the presentations and sign up now to reserve your spot.
Center for Public Education. (2008). The Research on Pre-K. Retrieved from http://www.centerforpubliceducation.org/Main-Menu/Pre-kindergarten/Pre-Kindergarten
Khimm, S. (2013). Is Oklahoma the right Model for Universal Pre-K. Retrieved from
Quinn, M. (2017). Universal Pre-K is hard to find and harder to fund. Retrieved from
Rock, A. (2017). What is Universal Pre-K. Retreived from https://www.verywell.com/universal-pre-k-2764970
Stipek, D. (2017). 3 Reasons Universal Pre-K is Valuable. Retrieved from http://www.parents.com/toddlers-preschoolers/starting-preschool/preparing/universal-preschool/
*An online degree from Ashford University does not lead to immediate teacher licensure in any state. If you want to become a classroom teacher, contact your state's education authorities prior to enrolling at Ashford to determine what state-specific requirements you must complete before obtaining your teacher's license. Ashford graduates will be subject to additional requirements on a state-by-state basis that will include one or more of the following: student teaching or practicum experience, additional coursework, additional testing, or, if the state requires a specific type of degree to seek alternative certification, earning an additional degree. None of Ashford's online education programs are CAEP, TEAC or NCATE accredited, which is a requirement for certification in some states.”