The end of summer and start of the new school year is a time that always brims with potential. Who isn’t moved by the sight of shining and excited little four-year-olds getting ready to go to prekindergarten—day one of their school career?
But this time of year also brings to mind the challenges facing lower-income working families trying to help their children get that critical early education experience. All too often, public prekindergarten programs don’t take account of the obstacles before low-income working parents who don’t have flexible jobs so can’t enroll their kids in programs that run only a few hours a day or a few days a week.
This problem was driven home when we, at The Urban Institute, interviewed low-income parents in the Chicago area. There, the state funds a prekindergarten program to help children get a strong start. But it’s out of reach for the children of some of the low-income working parents we spoke with because the school-based programs last only 2-3 hours a day, making it all but impossible to get their child to the program or home again. And though Illinois allows local child care centers to provide prekindergarten, the family still has to come up with the money to pay for the rest of the child care day – and without child care subsidies, many families we spoke to simply couldn’t.
This problem goes way beyond Chicago and Illinois. A quick look at state prekindergarten initiatives turned up only a handful of states funding prekindergarten services that last the full work day and not just the full-school-day.
As state prekindergarten expands to include more children—clearly a good thing—won’t we run the risk of widening the achievement gap if we don’t make sure that the most vulnerable children can participate?