Barry Pushes Preschool Legislation

Dorothy Rowley | 4/3/2013, 4:53 p.m.

D.C. Council member Marion Barry is following President Barack Obama's lead to expand educational opportunities for the District's toddlers with a proposal that makes it mandatory for three- and four-year-olds to enroll in early childhood programs.

But while the city already supports preschool education for that age group, Barry's legislation would change the minimum age at which children are traditionally required to attend school, from age five to three. In the process, Barry (D-Ward 8), believes the change might play an integral role closing the achievement gap between the city's minority and white students.

"My proposal will make a significant difference," said Barry, 76, who added that he's only waiting now for a hearing on the matter. "We need to get started as early as we can getting our children in these kinds of programs so that they'll be more likely to succeed in school - and later, in their careers," Barry said. "Right now, two-thirds of the 42,000 students who attend District public schools come from low-income communities where there are low test scores, high dropout rates and low graduation rates," he said, explaining that with the compulsory school ages in the District being 5 to 17, his legislation would help reduce those rates by reaching out to students as early as possible.

Information from Governing.com, a political-oriented website, states that currently, 13,000 out of 15,000 of the city's three year-olds are already enrolled in preschool. With his thrust toward guaranteeing improved academic outcomes for more children, Barry's bill would also require parents to take advantage of preschool education or enroll their children in private schools before they enroll at public facilities.

For example, Governing.com further reports that the AppleTree Institute, a D.C. charter preschool in Northeast, teaches three- and four-year-old at-risk students, and that during their two years at the school, the average student improved academically moving from the 35th to the 75th percentile level.

Citing that Mayor Vincent Gray's administration is already focused on getting children into preschool earlier, Phil Pannell, a former school board candidate, said that anytime a child's formal education gets a jump-start is good because it helps them excel sooner in subjects like grammar and reading.

"One of the biggest problems we have here in the District of Columbia is low reading scores among our students, and that's because a lot of them are not read to by their parents when they're younger," Pannell, 62, president of the Congress Heights Civic Association said. "So, when they start school [at age five], they're already handicapped."

Obama unveiled his plan to expand preschool education in February during his State of the Union Address. At that time, he expressed his intent to work with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in the country.

"The sooner children start learning, the better she or he is down the road," said Obama.

But speaking almost in contrast to Barry's proposal, the president acknowledged that most middle class parents can't afford the weekly bill of "a few hundred dollars" for private preschool and for poor kids who need help the most. "[As a result,] this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives," Obama said.

On the other hand, Mary Filardo, executive director of the Northwest-based 21st Century School Fund - a nationwide nonprofit schools advocacy organization - said she isn't so sure preschool programs should be mandatory.

"As a mother, I'd want a choice as to whether my three-year-old was sent to school or kept at home with me," said Filardo. "And I think that would be true whether one was a low-income parent or not."

She added that the notion that children are better off in a day care setting rather than at home, is simply not true.

"So, if they want to talk about school choice, that should be one of the big choices parents would have," Filardo said. "But whether preschool programs should be available for women who want or have to work, I think absolutely."