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Opinion: Middle-class families need more public preschools

When the Chicago Public Schools opened their doors to nearly 400,000 students this month, they also put barricades in front of scores of middle-class children.While CPS is making inroads into offering more preschool options to families that are less economically fortunate, middle-class families are offered only a tuition-based option that costs almost as much as the tuition at an in-state university. For a school district that markets itself as offering plenty of choices, early childhood education options are extremely limited, especially for middle-class families.OPINIONI felt this limitation acutely this spring when I was looking for a preschool for my three-year-old daughter. While there are three solid schools in my neighborhood, each with a Level 1 rating or higher, none offer a preschool option. There is just one CPS-based preschool, and it offers a half day, tuition-based program. Since my husband and I both work, we need a full-day program, preferably with a cushion of before-school and after-school care.  We didn’t find that option with CPS; we found it instead at a Chicago parochial school that charges about half the tuition of a CPS preschool.

My husband and I attended public schools, and we would like our children to do the same.  I have taught in the Chicago public schools for the last 12 years, and I feel a sense of loyalty to the district. But attracted by the promise of small class sizes, abundant after-school activities and a strong preschool program, my husband and I are thinking about sending our children to private schools and abandoning CPS.

This is not an issue unique to Chicago. Choices are slim around the nation. As National Public Radio reported in May, less than 40 percent of four-year-old children in the United States are enrolled in any kind of public preschool. According to the Department of Education, the United States ranks 25th in early learning enrollment, behind countries such as France, Singapore and Mexico.

The Obama administration had pledged to get 6 million children enrolled in public preschool, with the District of Columbia, which has nearly universal preschool, leading the charge.  The problem is funding. The District of Columbia leveraged Head Start funding and coupled it with charter schools to offer preschool to a majority of the city’s 3- and 4-year-olds. And with the help of a state grant late last year, Chicago was able to open more preschool classrooms in areas of need.

But how long it will take before there is a spot for every three-year-old at a Chicago public preschool? One possible way to fund more preschools in Chicago would be to dip into the funding for high schools. Research shows that the sooner a child receives a quality education, the better it is for her, yet we spend more per pupil on high school students than we do on elementary school students. I’ve been a high school teacher for 12 years, and I’ve worked in two neighborhood schools and one selective enrollment school. At all three schools, I’ve seen seniors take classes they don’t necessarily need to graduate.Are students better prepared for college when they take such courses? Maybe.  But what if seniors could attend classes half-day? We could cooperate with businesses for student internships, jobs and work-study programs. We could collaborate with city colleges to enroll more students who have the right credits in their programs.

CPS should follow the example of the District of Columbia and find a way to offer nearly universal preschool. If not, more middle class families like my own will be lured away by what private schools have to offer.

Gina Caneva is an English teacher, instructional leadership team lead and librarian at Lindblom Math and Science Academy. She is a Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum.

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