Virtual Pre-K? General Assembly considers controversial proposal for NC experiment

By: - April 18, 2019 5:00 am
Image: Adobe Stock

Kenneth Dodge, one of the nation’s preeminent scholars on early childhood education, says North Carolina’s four-year-olds would be better served by more preschool seats than an online school.

Dodge, the Pritzker Professor of Early Learning Policy Studies at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy, made his remarks in response to questions about House Bill 485, which would create a virtual early learning pilot program for at-risk children.

“My hypothesis is that it would be a failure because the value in Pre-K is less about the skill-learning in reading and math and more about skill-learning in social-emotional domains such as self-regulation, turn-taking, cooperation, waiting in line, social problem-solving, relating to peers and adults, and the other behaviors involved in going to school,” Dodge told Policy Watch. “I think the state’s response to the shortage of preschool seats should be to increase the number of preschool seats.”

Lawmakers are looking to HB 485 to expand access to preschool, which studies show increases a child’s chances for future academic success.

North Carolina currently has a long waiting list of young children who are eligible to attend state-funded preschools but do not because seats aren’t available, parent’s work schedules conflict, transportation issues, among others.

And even though the state increased preschool funding and enrollment during the 2017-18 school year, an academic report released this week by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University, found that access to Pre-K hovered at 23 percent, which is below the national average.

“The State of Preschool 2018” found that nationwide, only a third of 4-year-olds and 5.5 percent of 3-year-olds are enrolled in public preschools.

“Nationally, we are disappointed by the lack of progress and concerned about the number of children missing the quality early learning- experiences that can make a lifelong difference,” said NIERR Founder and Co-Director Steven Barnett.

But Barnett said “North Carolina is moving in the right direction with increased investments and access for 4-year-olds to the state program.”

Supporters of the online school see it as a way to provide more low-income, at-risk children access to “quality preschool.”

Rep. Craig Horn

“High-quality Pre-K is the best solution, no question about it,” said Rep. Craig Horn, (R-Union), the bill’s primary sponsor. “If we tripled the number of slots they [at-risk children] still couldn’t get there. Transportation issues, health issues, socioeconomic issue, issues that we can’t even imagine.”

In addition to Horn, Rep. John A. Fraley, (R-Iredell) Rep. Harry Warren, (R-Rowan) and Rep. Marvin D. Lucas, (D-Cumberland) are also listed as sponsors of HB 485.

If approved, 10 schools districts would be selected for the three-year pilot program. The State Board of Education (SBE) or local school district would purchase computers and provide Internet service for families that cannot afford them.

The state would fund the program to the tune of $500,000 each year, beginning in the 2019-20 school year.

The SBE would be required to make a report about the program to the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee by Nov. 30 of each year.

The state would use an early learning, online program known as “Upstart” that was developed by Utah-based nonprofit, Waterford Institute.

The program is reportedly used by more than 300,000 children in at least 15 states.

Former Utah state Sen. Howard Stephenson vouched for “Upstart” during a House Education Committee meeting Tuesday.

Stephenson said the program has produced noteworthy results in Utah.

“The Upstart students in Utah enter kindergarten at or above grade level, typically at a first-grade level,” Stephenson said. “There has never been in the history of Pre-K programs anything that has produced this kind of initial first-year start.”

But critics of Upstart and similar online preschool programs contend such programs can cause delayed social-emotional development, sleep deprivation and behavior problems.

“We are concerned about encouraging more screen time for young children,” said Jennifer Andrew, spokeswoman for Public Schools First NC. “Most experts agree, kids need less screen time, not more.”

Andrew noted that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends no more than one hour of screen time per day for children ages 2 to 5.

“An important component of Pre-K is social and emotional learning,” Andrew said. “A virtual Pre-K program would not allow children to practice face-to-face interactions, nor would it encourage children to be outside. Online learning is not a replacement for a high-quality Pre-K program.”

Josh Golin, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, voiced similar concerns in an interview with The Hechinger Report.

“It just goes against everything we know about child development and what’s best for children,” Golin said. “Children at that age learn best when they’re engaging all of their senses, when they’re using their hands, when they’re in social situations with peers and caring teachers … none of that can happen when a young child is on a computer.”

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Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.