This turnaround – after decades of rising participation in child care and preschool options by all families – jeopardizes state and federal efforts to narrow persisting gaps in children’s early school achievement and raise the quality of the workforce, conclude the authors of the study being presented to an annual meeting of the Education Writers Association in New Orleans.
The share of Latino 4-year-olds attending preschool fell nationwide, from 53 percent to 48 percent between 2005 and 2009, a period that included the deep economic recession’s onset in 2007. The decline in preschool attendance may represent a 10 percent drop, depending on how immigrant families responded to three national surveys that were analyzed, researchers said. They said their findings have a margin of error of plus or minus 1 percent.
“We know that quality preschool lifts the early literacy and social skills of Latino children, especially those from Spanish-speaking homes,” said Bruce Fuller, study coauthor and a UC Berkeley professor of education and public policy. “So, as fewer Latino kids benefit from preschool, they will experience less success as they move through school.”
The authors cite three possible causes of the decline. One is that joblessness rose from 6.3 percent to 10.6 percent between 2005 and 2009 for Latina women 20 and older, and these rates ranged higher for less educated Latinas. In turn, families likely pulled their children from preschool programs, researchers said.
They also cited state reductions in aid for publicly supported preschool, and worries among some immigrant families about contact with formal institutions.
The share of all U.S. children entering preschool has climbed dramatically over the past quarter-century, the study shows. In 1991, just over one-third of white and one-fourth of Latino youngsters age 3-5 years old attended preschool. By 2009, almost 70 percent of white 4-year-olds and almost half of their Latino peers were enrolled.
The share of African American 4-year-olds attending preschool equaled that of whites for the first time in 2005, and black enrollment showed no sign of weakening during the recession, the study said.
The investigation also revealed that most preschools do not focus attention on boosting children’s language and pre-literacy skills, and that they rarely organize classroom tasks to challenge kids’ cognitive growth. This problem was exacerbated in the preschool experience for children of immigrant parents.
“Disparities in preschool quality, hampering the developmental potential of Latino children, come to exacerbate learning gaps relative to middle-class white peers, even before these youngsters start school,” Fuller said.
Latino children are much less likely to attend preschool for all or part of the day, compared with their white counterparts, while the majority of white children attend part-day, the researchers said.
“The nation’s remarkable progress in equalizing black children’s access to preschool shows that smart, well-financed public policies can work,” Fuller said.
U.S. House of Representatives’ leaders in Washington, D.C., are negotiating with Senate leaders over a proposed $1.1 billion cut for federally funded Head Start preschools.
Fuller is author of “Standardized Childhood: The Political and Cultural Struggle over Early Education.” His co-author on the Latino preschool study is Anthony Y. Kim, a UC Berkeley Ph.D. student in quantitative methods.
Kathleen Maclay, Media Relations