Panel Paper: Disparities in Preschool Quality Across Communities: A Case Study of Georgia's Pre-Kindergarten Program

Saturday, November 9, 2013 : 8:00 AM
3015 Madison (Washington Marriott)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Eva T Galdo, University of Virginia
In his State of the Union address President Obama declared the expansion of access to high-quality preschool for four-year olds, especially those from low- and middle-income families, a top priority.  High-quality preschool programs have been shown to have substantial long-term benefits for low-income children, but earlier research suggests that access to these programs is limited, particularly in low-income communities. The White House fact sheet detailing Obama’s new plan for early education motivates the preschool expansion initiative by saying, “A zip code should never predetermine the quality of any child’s educational opportunities.”  This paper explores the relationship between community characteristics and preschool quality, measured by indicators of process quality.

A large body of evidence suggests that K-12 school quality varies substantially depending on the demographic composition of communities.  Less research is available examining this issue in the early childhood context, although there is some evidence suggesting that early learning experiences also differ by ethnic and economic background (Magnuson & Waldfogel, 2005; Fuller, Kagan, Loeb, & Chang, 2004).  Typically this research measures quality by structural indicators, such as the educational attainment of teachers or the child to adult ratio.  However, structural measures of quality are relatively poor predictors of children’s actual learning experience.  A growing body of evidence suggests that more proximal measures of quality, called process quality, which capture the actual interactions between children and their teachers, are stronger predictors of children’s learning.  This paper provides new evidence about the associations between community characteristics and early childhood process quality.

I leverage unique data from Georgia’s Universal Pre-Kindergarten program, one of the longest standing and largest universal preschool programs in the nation, often touted for both its scope and high quality.  The voluntary program is available in all 159 counties in Georgia and operates in both public and private settings.  Georgia Pre-K is a full day program, operating 160 days per year and 6.5 hours per day.  It now serves over 60% of the state’s four-year old population.  Of those children enrolled, about 55% are classified as at-risk. 

Georgia collects detailed quality measures on nearly all of its Pre-K program sites.  Using data from 3,883 classrooms in 1,791 Georgia Pre-K program sites, this paper describes the relationship between quality, as measured by CLASS (Classroom Assessment Scoring System), and zip code-level community characteristics, including racial composition, percent poverty, median household income, population density, and unemployment, collected from the US Census. 

Preliminary analysis suggests that communities with higher concentrations of non-white populations and greater poverty experience a greater proportion of low-quality centers as well as lower overall average quality scores.  Relatedly, high-quality centers are concentrated in areas with higher proportions of white populations and greater wealth.  This pattern of lesser quality classrooms in communities with the most disadvantaged populations has policy implications for current efforts at preschool expansion.  The anticipated gains from expanded preschool interventions will depend on the quality of the interventions.  This study highlights the extent to which systematic quality differences exist, even within the context of a highly-regulated, high-quality public program.