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WI: Wisconsin Reporter Special Investigation: Is 4K making the grade?

By   /   September 14, 2012  /   News  /   No Comments

By Kirsten Adshead  | Wisconsin Reporter

MADISON — Wisconsin taxpayers are footing a $200 million-plus annual bill for a program that has little oversight, indeterminate goals and inconclusive results.

IS IT WORTH IT: Wisconsin’s 4K program cost taxpayers more than $200 million, but is it making the grade?

And the program itself — kindergarten for 4-year-olds — has grown so rapidly during the past several years that now about 90 percent of school districts offer a 4K program, and some that aren’t are in the process of implementing it.

“I think my main sense is that it’s a big enough program and it’s expanded significantly in the last few years, and the research shows that high-quality early learning can have strong, positive impacts,” said Dave Edie, early education policy analyst at the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families. “But we just don’t know whether that’s happening in Wisconsin or not. We just don’t have enough data.”

The Council, is a private, nonpartisan nonprofit that focuses on children- and family-related issues. The group supports 4K but concluded in a 2010 report, primarily written by Edie, that a systemic study of the program is needed.

“Wisconsin has had rapid growth of 4K in the last few years, with enrollment doubling since the 2002-03 school year,” the report noted. “It is an appropriate time for an independent evaluation of 4K, both school-based and community approaches. An evaluation could look at the quality and effectiveness of 4K programs, assess the impact of community approaches, and identify 4K strengths and weaknesses that districts can learn from.”

The council and 4K’s numerous supporters are waiting.

Wisconsin Reporter isn’t.

Today, we take a detailed look at the explosion of 4K programs in Wisconsin, assessing their effectiveness and cost to taxpayers and consumers. What Wisconsin Reporter has learned is there are many unknowns in an initiative that is costing taxpayers tens of millions of dollars, and the state’s public education agency isn’t answering questions about how students are faring.

4K boom

Programs to educate 4-year-olds in Wisconsin are as old as the state itself. But there was a steep drop-off in outside-of-home preschool participation around the 1920s, and numbers didn’t surge again until the 1970s and 1980s, according to the state Department of Public Instruction and the WCCF report.

Lawmakers reinstated 4K funding in 1984 and adjusted it in 1991.

Since 1996, there has been a rapid-fire expansion:

  • 72 school districts had a 4K program in 1996.
  •  Last school year, 368 of the 414 districts offering primary education — 88 percent — had 4K programs
  • DPI expects six or seven school districts to add 4K this year, meaning roughly 90 percent of school districts now offer a 4K program
  • Total fall enrollment pre-kindergarten through 12th grade has been essentially stagnate since 1995-96, but pre-K enrollment is an ever-growing part of that equation. Pre-K enrollment accounted for 2.1 percent of the total in ’95-’96, but 6.3 percent of total enrollment last year.

Wisconsin 4k is, by design, a disparate system.

School districts with 4K programs can hold the classes in their own school buildings or partner with local child-care centers, which may provide their own teachers.

DPI doesn’t know how much 4K costs — any more than it knows how much kindergarten or first grade, etc., costs, department spokesman Patrick Gasper said in an email.

“Because of the nature of the funding formula, it is impossible to determine what the ‘costs’ are for 4K,” he said. “The state doesn’t fund programs such as 4K with its state general aid, but funds based on a complicated formula, of which student enrollment is but one factor.”

The nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau’s best guesstimate is that, last school year, the cost to taxpayers was $240.3 million for 4K — $148.3 million from the state and the rest from local property taxes.

But, LFB fiscal analyst Russ Kava noted, “These figures do not include the categorical aid appropriation for grants to districts that implement a new 4K program, or state funding provided to schools in the Milwaukee and Racine parental choice and charter school programs as a result of those schools including 4K pupils in their enrollment counts.”

Gasper said he couldn’t point to “any single factor” that would explain the rapid expansion of 4K.

Grading 4K

There is plenty of evidence to suggest that involvement in early-childhood education programs helps kids academically later on.

But is taxpayer-funded 4K better than the child-care programs many children were attending anyway, at their parents’ expense?

Are Wisconsin schools improving relative to other states? Are test scores up?

Experts say that’s not necessarily the point of 4K.

“There are more kids coming to school without some of the basic skills that we expect to see —color recognition, letter recognition,” said Lois Alt, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction for the D.C. Everest School District in north central Wisconsin. D.C. Everest is adding a 4K program for the 2013-14 school year.

Alt said the hope is that parents will take advantage of having the 4K program, which is free to them and covers 2.5 hours a day, and the knowledge gap among kindergartners will close.

“The biggest thing is that we will have assurance of continuity of programming,” she said. “We will know what every student is getting.”

The state requires that 4K teachers have kindergarten or pre-kindergarten license, and 4K programs must include at least 437 hours of instruction each year. There are no student-teacher ratio requirements.

Similarly, although the state gives guidelines for curriculum, curricula is a strictly local issue.

The Madison Metropolitan School District, for example, chose not to require its partner day-care school to use a particular curriculum.

A subcommittee “has defined that the 4K curricula must be developmentally appropriate, align with the Wisconsin Model Early Learning Standards (WMELS) and Accreditation criteria, be play-based, inclusive, research based, inclusive of culture, race, social class, gender, languages and needs, and designed to promote partnerships with families,” according to the school district.

However, “Individual centers will be able to design their own unique programming to meet these requirements.”

Do 4K students fare better than others who had access to child care, day care and other programs for 4-year-olds?

Wisconsin Reporter repeatedly requested an interview with a 4K expert from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction, but DPI officials either ignored or declined those requests.

Wisconsin Reporter, however, compared the third-grade standardized test results from November 2010 and November 2011 from school districts that added 4K in the 2007-08 school year.

The students who took the exam in 2010 would have been the last class in those districts to not have 4K, while the students who took the exam last November would have been the first, third-grade students in those districts to have attended 4K.

Wisconsin begins standardized testing students in third grade. Results are divided into four categories — minimal, basic, proficient and advanced.

School districts aim for “proficient” or better.

According to Wisconsin Reporter’s analysis, from 2010-11 to the 2011-12 school year:

  • 19 of the 26 school districts had more students test in the “minimal” category in 2011 than in 2010
  • 16 had more students in the basic category from year to year
  • 17 had more students scored proficient
  • Nine had more students score advanced

“I think … that a good child care preschool program that’s not connected to the school district can do a lot of good things,” Edie, the  early education policy analyst said. “I think what a 4K program can do is make it available to families who can’t afford those other settings.”

So, who’s 4K helping?

Test scores, of course, are not the only measurement of a child’s, school’s or program’s success.

Kurt Munchoff of Green Bay enrolled his children in 4K in part because he didn’t start having kids until his 40s, so his children missed some of the social benefits of being surrounded by families with kids their own age. Munchoff’s son, Isaac, was in 4K last year.

“I definitely saw little bit different behaviors at the park — he was more willing to run off and play with other kids rather than just play on his own,” Munchoff said.“I think it gave us a clearer picture of what was expected once he arrived at kindergarten, and then I think just structured time, being able to sit down and get some work done (helped prepare him for this year),” he said.

Pat Marcus oversees the SPARK Early Literacy Program, part of the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee, which helps kids from kindergarten through third grade who are behind in literacy catch up with their peers.

Even if kids can catch up by the third-grade standardized test, that doesn’t mean there’s no effect from the years they spent in school believing they are not as smart as the other students, Marcus said.

“To be a failure when you’re 6 or 7 years old is just heart-breaking,” she said.

4K windfall

Less altruistically, it appears cash-strapped school districts may benefit financially from starting up a 4K program — at taxpayers’ expense.

Last May, the Madison Metropolitan School Board approved a preliminary $376.2 million 2012-13 budget, with the assumption that state aid would drop by about $800,000 in the next fiscal year.

To fill the potential gap, the board approved a hefty property tax hike of nearly 5 percent, and the sharply criticized Republicans, including Gov. Scott Walker, for making deep cuts to state aid.

The Department of Public Instruction, however, since has estimated that Madison public school district will receive nearly $12 million in additional state aid in the next school year — apparently due to Madison’s robust increase in its 4-year-old kindergarten program, which enrolled 1,800 students.

And teaming with the public school district to provide a 4K program doesn’t necessarily hurt private day-care centers either.

Non-school district schools that house 4K programs under the district’s guidance aren’t allowed to charge tuition for the 4K program.

But they can charge families whose children stay there all day the same tuition— now for a five- or six-hour day— that they were charging for an eight- or nine-hour day before starting a 4K program.

“We actually increased the salary of the teacher who’s working in that program for those hours,” said Diane Ladwig, director of the Gundersen Lutheran child care program in La Crosse, which did not drop tuition when 4K was added. “We also have additional prep time for their curriculum and their assessment and all that, that’s counted in that. Plus, we used the money for maintenance and equipment, so the money is well-used.”

Questions, more questions

Is a 4K program that casts a wide net the best way to help the families who can’t find or afford preschool on their own?

Would it make more sense to fund a smaller program targeted at those students who wouldn’t otherwise get an early childhood education?

As Wisconsin approaches a universal 4K program, can officials say, for certain, that 4K is a success?

Are those questions being asked?

DPI isn’t saying.

More than two years after the WCCF suggested that, given the expansion of 4K statewide and the lack of consistency in its implementation, it was time for a full-scale study of the program, Wisconsin is still waiting.

“What I would like to see is a thorough evaluation of programs of 4-year-old kindergarten in Wisconsin to see what’s working,” Edie said.

Implementation of 4K is so localized, it’s hard to get a sense of how well the program, as a whole is functioning, he said.

“The more children at risk you have, the more difficult it is to have a high-quality 4K program,” he said.

Edie said WCCF hasn’t pushed hard for a statewide study yet but is going to put more pressure on the state in the next year or two.

“I don’t hear very much from communities that are dissatisfied (with 4K),” he said. “But I don’t know.”

Contact Kirsten Adshead at [email protected]


Kirsten formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.