Kathleen Knauth has had a rough school year. The principal of Hillview elementary, near Buffalo, New York, has spent so much time typing teacher evaluations, entering data, and preparing for standardized testing, she barely had a minute to do what she used to do in her first 12 years of being a principal—drop in on classes, address parents’ concerns, or get to know students. When a school social worker stopped by her office a few months back to get Knauth’s take on which children might need her help, she realized she had hit a new low.
“Normally I’d say, ‘This one’s grandma is seriously ill. This child is going through a huge custody battle. This one has clothes that are too small. I could reel off six to eight things,” says Knauth. “But this year, I had nothing.”
As we contemplate the possibly bright future of pre-K laid out in Obama’s state of the union address this year, in which the feds work together “with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America,” along comes a sobering glimpse of what public preschool looks like now. It’s not quite as rosy.
Rather than charting progress toward getting all four-year-olds ready for kindergarten, the National Institute for Early Education Research’s annual survey of programs, just issued last week, shows a system in disrepair—or perhaps even retreat. Even as recognition of the benefits of preschool for four-year-olds has grown, the actual implementation of it has stalled – and, in places, lost ground. Meanwhile state funding for pre-K has gone down by more than half a billion dollars in the last year, according to NIEER. In 2012, state spending per child fell to well below what it was ten years ago.
It’s too late for Tonisha Howard, the mother of three in Milwaukee who was fired for leaving work to be with her hospitalized two-year-old. And for Felix Trinidad, who was so afraid of losing his job at Golden Farm fruit store in Brooklyn that he didn’t take time off to go to the doctor—even after he vomited blood. Trinidad, a father of two who had stomach cancer, continued to work until just days before his death from stomach cancer at age 34. But for workers in Portland and perhaps Philadelphia, paid sick days just got much closer to becoming reality.