By Lindsay Wagner

Among the many education proposals that have surfaced during the 2019 legislative session, few have provoked as much heated debate as this idea: to enact a 3-year pilot program that would provide low-income and military families in ten districts across North Carolina with a virtual preschool platform known as UPSTART.

Rep. D. Craig Horn’s (R-Union) endorsement of the computer-based early learning application has sparked an intense backlash from early childhood experts and practitioners. They say enabling 4-year-olds to move independently through educational sequences on a screen at home for 15 minutes a day cannot replace the social-emotional learning and interactions with peers and caring adults that takes place in high-quality brick and mortar pre-kindergarten classrooms.

Rep. Horn, the primary champion of the program, has been in discussions with representatives of UPSTART’s Utah-based nonprofit organization, Waterford.org, for years, he said. By backing a virtual pre-kindergarten option, Horn has said it’s not his intent to supplant access to high-quality school- or center-based pre-K with UPSTART. Early childhood education advocates say thousands of North Carolinian children either wait for NC Pre-K spaces or simply have given up trying to access this program. Instead, Horn says he wants to provide a high-quality supplementary program for those children who are going without this kind of formal education.

“We are targeting our most underserved children, four-year-olds that for whatever reason don’t have access to a Pre-K or just can’t get to one,” said Horn in a speech to fellow lawmakers at a House education committee meeting.

The reason kids can’t get to NC Pre-K programs, say early childhood education advocates, isn’t really “whatever;” it’s a matter of priorities. Children have insufficient access to NC Pre-K, which is state-funded and takes place in schools and private centers, because state lawmakers haven’t invested in it adequately. Roughly half of all income-eligible children for NC Pre-K still lack access to the program, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.

“Despite the strong evaluations of NC Pre-K, current funding supports fewer than half of eligible children,” said Marsha Basloe, President of the Child Care Services Association based in Chapel Hill and Durham. “To me, the answer should be to adequately fund NC Pre-K so that 4-year-old children can attend, not divert resources to an online preschool that misses the mark on what matters most for early childhood development – effective interactions with children. Not screen time.”

As lawmakers debate the fate of Rep. Horn’s virtual pre-K pitch (it landed in the House budget but not the Senate version, which means lawmakers will hash a compromise budget behind closed doors that may or may not include the legislation, or the stand alone bill will move along on its own), what is lesser known about the nonprofit behind this platform– Waterford.org–is that they’ve already made inroads here in North Carolina, where five school districts have begun experimenting with some of their school-based products.

In Chatham County, five preschool classrooms are piloting one of Waterford’s other early learning applications by allowing preschoolers to use the program in classroom centers for up to 15 minutes each day.

Carol Little, Executive Director of Federal Programs and School Improvement of Chatham County Schools, says they have been piloting the Waterford programs this spring just to get a feel for the software and how their students respond to it.

Little cautions, however, that the district’s use of Waterford early learning programs is strictly supplementary in nature.

“There is no replacement for that human interaction with a teacher,” said Little. “We appreciate Waterford as a supplement, but it is only 12-15 minutes a day.”

In Chatham County, Little believes roughly a third of the preschool population cannot access high-quality Pre-K in school-based or private, center-based programs across the district.

“We firmly believe in bringing children here, into our high-quality Pre-K programs, and working with them face-to-face,” said Little. “Waterford’s school-based program offers a program that simply supplements that kind of instruction, and children can choose to use the computer application in their centers — or not.”

CCSA’s senior vice president, Linda Chappel, says she isn’t opposed to using Waterford’s software in school or center-based programs, per se. But she cautions that 4-year-olds primarily make sense of their worlds through play-based learning–which, of course, cannot be conducted through a computer application.

“If an online tool is used as a supplement, it is not necessarily bad as long as it is closely supervised and the teacher plans for that learning time,” said Chappel.

“But look around when you go to the grocery store, to a restaurant, and other public places. In many instances, you increasingly see parents giving their children screens to pass the time or manage behavior. Kids are already getting a lot of screen time, and we need to account for that,” Chappel said.

A representative for UPSTART, Kim Fischer, said the program is designed to be supplementary in nature, not a replacement for high quality Pre-K programs.

“The program is designed to be used in homes for no more than 15 minutes a day, five days a week with parents,” said Fischer. “On top of that, we have parent coaches that are in charge of talking with parents starting off on a fairly regular basis.”

The Waterford model also offers families internet connections and a computer, said Jenni Torres, Waterford’s VP for Curriculum Development, although she was unsure how that would play out in North Carolina. The language in the bill suggests that UPSTART should provide for the installation of computer and internet access in homes; however, it could be incumbent on the the local school board or school district to purchase equipment and internet connections for families who cannot afford those things.

Unlike UPSTART, high quality pre-K programs such as NC Pre-K typically last for 6.5 hours a day and include play-based learning activities that center around developing relationships that build strong social and emotional skills, learning how to physically maneuver a book and its storytelling components, and how to grip a pencil or crayon and develop the ability to write and draw, among other types of play and work.

Preschool programs also provide the opportunity for very young children to learn how to wait their turn or share, to transition between activities and how to use their words to express their thoughts or feelings in a group setting – to lead, follow or just get along with peers, said CCSA’s Basloe.

These are soft-skills that are learned in a hands-on experience that can’t be learned through a computer lesson,” Basloe said.

Waterford’s Fischer says the company understands that people believe in brick-and-mortar Pre-K and that play-based learning is important. “However, we believe what we offer is a way to fill in the gaps for kids that are not getting that education right now,” who pointed to multiple independent evaluations that found positive learning outcomes associated with UPSTART.

But CCSA’s Chappel says there’s a better way to fill in the gaps for kids who are not getting high-quality educational services right now: state lawmakers can invest in NC Pre-K instead of a computer program that takes a band-aid approach.

“Do we want our children to have access to a high-quality program for only 15 minutes a day, even if there is data that indicates the program produces positive learning outcomes? Are only 15 minutes a day of instruction acceptable? That’s all we are going to invest in?” said Chappel.

Chappel says lawmakers should consider investing significantly in NC Pre-K in order to truly fill the gap that our state’s children and families are faced with when it comes to early childhood education, which she says is in the neighborhood of $300 million — a much larger figure than the $1 million Rep. Horn proposes for the virtual pre-K pilot.

“Or you could give tax breaks to corporations that total more than $300 million,” Chappel said. “But those corporations aren’t going to have the best workers when these kids grow up if they don’t have successful experiences in school. We know that NC Pre-K sets them up for success–why aren’t we investing in our future workforce?”

Rep. Horn, who did not respond to a request for comment, has said he plans to include more support for NC Pre-K; however, there are no new expansion funds in the House budget proposal released earlier this month. There’s also language in the bill that directs the pilot to test the feasibility of scaling a home-based curriculum in reading, math, and science delivered by computers and the Internet to all preschool-age children in the state of North Carolina.

It’s unclear whether or not support for a virtual early learning program could set up a scenario where North Carolina lawmakers ultimately decrease their support for more high quality pre-K programs that bring children face-to-face with teachers and peers. But if UPSTART comes to North Carolina, would Waterford.org, whose representatives say they understand that people believe in brick-and-mortar high quality preschool options, ask legislators to also increase spending on programs like NC Pre-K?

“We can’t tell legislators what to do,” said Fischer.

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*This post has been updated to clarify that Waterford.org is a nonprofit organization, not a company, and to clarify the question that was asked to a Waterford representative with regard to increased spending on NC Pre-K.

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