When Mateus Bontempo started preschool at a public school in Long Branch, N.J., he rarely talked and was so shy he’d stand in the classroom doorway until a teacher came to escort him inside.
Anna Dasilva, his mother, says educators worked with Mateus on his social skills, sometimes taking him to other classrooms to meet new children. Four years later, the eight-year-old third grader plays trumpet, participates in math competitions and performs in plays. “They really helped him along,” says Mrs. Dasilva, who thinks all children should have the same preschool opportunity.
So does President Barack Obama. As one of the main goals of his education plan, he wants to spend $10 billion to encourage states to offer universal preschool and expand federal early-learning programs like Head Start. The recently passed stimulus bill includes half that spending goal, or $5 billion, for Head Start and related early-childhood efforts.
But the current economic crisis may blunt state-level efforts to broaden access to preschool. Even in better times, building a “universal” preschool system would likely be a slow and expensive proposition, given the patchwork nature of what currently exists.
And as state and federal efforts target early learning programs toward disadvantaged students, some middle-class parents feel that their children are being left out. According to a recent study by Pre-K Now, families earning more than about $40,000 a year are already ineligible for free preschool in most of the 20 states that use income to determine eligibility.