David Kirp Credit: photo by Gan Bai

David Kirp is an outspoken critic of policies—like those in Illinois—that promote quantity over quality in preschool education. Kirp was in Chicago recently to discuss his engaging new book “The Sandbox Investment: The Preschool Movement and Kids-First Politics” at a conference on early childhood education hosted by the Erikson Institute. He spoke with Consulting Editor Cindy Richards about why Chicago is, as he calls it, “the epicenter of the pre-k universe.”

Why is the first chapter of the book about Chicago?

Chicago is a place that shows pre-k at its best and shows its problematic sides as well. Chicago has the best, ablest community of activists I know of in the country. Folks like Maria Whelan [Illinois Action for Children], Jerry Stermer [Voices for Illinois Children], Harriet Meyer [Ounce of Prevention] and others gather behind closed doors, blood leaks out from under the door, and they emerge and say “This is what we’re going to do.” Then they mobilize tens of thousands of parents to head to Springfield. Chicago also has one of the most powerful concentrations of thinkers about early education—Peter Huttenlocher [neuroscientist at the University of Chicago], Nobel Prize winner Jim Heckman [University of Chicago economist], Greg Duncan [professor of public policy] at Northwestern and the Erikson Institute.

What’s working in Chicago?

Child-Parent Centers, which have been around for 40 years. One group of kids from that program was tracked into their 20s. They spent less time in jail, earned more money, were more likely to graduate high school. The best estimate is a return on investment of $7 for each dollar spent. But instead of being justifiably proud of the best urban preschool program in the country, CPS has been killing it off one small cut at a time. What made the program great was it involved parents very deeply. That is gone. It was a full day, now it’s a half-day.

Let’s talk about quality vs. quantity. Why isn’t more pre-k better?

This is not one of those cases of invest a little, get a modest return; invest a lot, get a big return. Invest a little and, at best, you get nothing. The best/worst example is Texas. It does not set any limits on enrollment in pre-k classrooms, so you have upwards of 35 children in a room with one teacher. At best, these kids are safe from the sun and sleet. At worst, you have recreated “Lord of the Flies.”

Why should there be universal free pre-K when wealthy parents can afford it?

Kids who need pre-k the most are getting the least amount of it. At Ray School, one side of the hallway is a half-day class for at-risk children, which is free. Across the hallway is a full day pre-k for children whose parents pay $8,000 to the district. Imagine if 30 feet down the hall there was a half-day free kindergarten and across the hall a paying class. Parents would revolt, lawyers would be running to the courthouse to sue the district. If free education for all children makes sense for 5-year-olds, doesn’t it make sense for 4-year-olds?

How do states build the political will to fund universal preschool?

Pull together a coalition that includes all the expected allies—early childhood professionals, child care and early education advocates and public schools. Then add unlikely allies, such as economists and the Business Roundtable, Federal Reserve, police chiefs and district attorneys.

We’ve got all of that here. Why hasn’t it worked?

Here you have strong support from advocates for quantity. But more than 70 percent of Chicago children are in unlicensed child care programs. We know from the research that quality early education plus parent involvement benefits kids the most. In Chicago, the choice has been for a place that kids can go while their parents are working. It’s about the needs of working parents, which are real, but not about the needs of kids, which are equally real.

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