A bill to create a virtual early learning pilot program for four-year-olds got a lot of attention after being introduced last month by State Rep. Craig Horn, (R-Union).
The program didn’t get a mention last week in the N.C. Senate as that body hammered out the details of its two-year spending plan in preparation for upcoming budget negotiations.
Horn said Friday that he’ll continue to fight for the program when the House and Senate meet this week to square differences in their budgets before shipping a joint spending plan to Gov. Roy Cooper to sign or veto.
“I not only plan to continue to push, but redouble my efforts,” said Horn. “The more I’ve learned about the program, the more I’m convinced of its efficacy.”
House Bill 485 would authorize the State Board of Education to select 10 school districts to participate in a three-year pilot program using the home-based Waterford UPSTART (Utah Preparing Students Today for a Rewarding Tomorrow) kindergarten readiness program launched in 2009 by Utah-based nonprofit, Waterford Inc.
Horn pushed back against media references to UPSTART as a virtual preschool.
“That [virtual preschool] is an inaccurate characterization of this early education project called UPSTART,” Horn said. “UPSTART requires parental involvement, includes individual coach support for both the student and the parents and outside reading and other activities.”
He noted that students using UPSTART only spend 15 minutes per day online.
Still, UPSTART has been roundly criticized by educators who believe four-year olds are too young to attend an online school.
Kenneth Dodge, a Duke University professor and one of the nation’s preeminent scholars on early childhood education, told Policy Watch last month that the state’s four-year-olds would be better served by more preschool seats than an online school.
“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 said.
Horn said he would like to expand the state’s successful preschool programs such as NC Pre-K and Smart Start, but doing so wouldn’t solve all access problems
“If we had all the money in the world, and we could dedicate every penny of it to NC Pre-K or Smart Start, we would still have thousands of kids who would not have access to preschool for reasons far beyond the fact program may or may not be available,” Horn said.
He said those reason could include parents not having transportation, illness or other prohibitive situations that might keep children home.
Horn said he agrees with educators who contend UPSTART and similar programs are not substitutes for preschool.
“It is not a replacement for, or an alternative to, face-to-face, high quality pre-K,” Horn said. “It’s an additional tool to be available to those kids who otherwise would not have that opportunity so we can work toward eliminate the readiness gap.”
Horn said he isn’t worried about the Senate didn’t mention the pilot program.
“That’s the way the budget process works,” Horn explained. “The Senate puts things in that they never talked to us about and the House puts things in we never talked to them about. As long as one [legislative body] brings it up, it’s eligible for conference.”