AS A PARENT OF
a young child, you may worry that soaring college tuition costs will keep you from living out the retirement of your dreams. But have you looked at preschool prices? As many parents of 3-year-olds know all too well, the monthly tuition fees of a good preschool can rival your mortgage payments.
On average, parents pay $7,000 a year for preschool education (which can sometimes last two or more years), according to the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies (NACCRRA). In some areas, prices can climb above $10,000 such as Battery Park City Day Nursery in New York City per year.
The steep fees leave some parents reeling. "This is blocks and Play-Doh, essentially. What are we doing?" asks Elizabeth Henderson, a mother of three in Tustin, Calif., referring to the $500 a month she'd pay to send her youngest to a nearby preschool for three half-days a week.
The high price often forces parents to choose between a high-quality early education and saving for college tuition for their kids, says Don Owens, director of public affairs for the National Association for the Education of Young Children. Even though preschool is not mandatory in the U.S., it's become in many parents' minds a prerequisite not only for a successful kindergarten experience, but ultimately for getting into the right college 15 years down the road.
And there may be some truth to that. Many early-development studies show that the first five years are the most important years in a child's brain development. Experts say preschool teaches children how to get along in a social structure how to listen, take turns, respect others and learn a routine. Hence, the intense and sometimes cut-throat application process for elite preschools in some parts of the country.
Henderson admits she was a bit late in the game when it came time to shop for a preschool for her son. When she inquired at one school, the receptionist told Henderson her son's name would be about 400th on the waiting list. "I gasped," she recalls. "She told me some parents put kids on the list while they're in utero."
Of course, preschool comes in many shapes and sizes: private centers (which constitute the largest number of preschool programs), government-funded school programs, religious-based schools, informal play groups and so on. As many as 38 states offer some sort of state-funded preschool program, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research, although most are targeted at economically disadvantaged or at-risk children. Wealthier children can attend, but for a fee.
Ultimately, children can get the skills necessary to ensure kindergarten success without the $7,000 annual bill. Here are some alternatives:
Parent co-op preschools are usually nonprofit organizations where parents take turns working in the classroom with the kids and teacher. Work can range from the administration, operation, and maintenance of the facility to teaching. It's less expensive than traditional private programs since the parents are contributing work in lieu of tuition dollars but it's not for the parent just interested in saving a few bucks. It's for parents who want to participate and have a say in their child's education.
Christy Gordon Baty, a mother of two girls in El Cerrito, Calif., left her lucrative job at a credit-card company in San Francisco before she enrolled her older daughter at Peter Pan Cooperative Nursery School four years ago. The school cost just $120 a month, compared with $800 a month for a nearby preschool. But, she cautions, co-ops demand a lot of time and energy from parents. "As a parent you're there to clean, prepare food, teach classes and support the director," she says.
The daily schedule of the co-op is usually not as rigid and academic as other preschool programs. That's one reason Jill Weinlein, a mother of two girls in La Canada, Calif., liked being involved in her older daughter's co-op experience. In her co-op, she says, there was a high 4-to-1 child-to-adult ratio, so there would always be one adult doing arts and crafts, one reading in the library area, one outside playing so the children had different activities to choose from at any one time.
The typical time commitment for a co-op is at least one day every other week. In exchange for their participation, parents can expect to pay, depending on the school and the state, up to 80% less than traditional private school tuition. Parents interested in finding a co-op near them can check out Parent Cooperative Preschools International's web site for listings of co-ops in various states.
Family Child Care
Some parents skip the traditional preschool route and instead seek out smaller, at-home day care with an educational bent.
Amy Oleson, a grade-school teacher in Sioux City, Iowa, has been sending her 3-year-old son, Ty, to Explorations, a husband-and-wife-run family-child-care program, since he was eight months old. Oleson pays about $115 a week (for three days per week). One of the main draws for her is the so-called emergent-learning approach used there. The term refers to an early childhood learning approach advocated by many experts that promotes learning through a child's interests and actions.
Like traditional preschool programs, the children sing the alphabet song, learn how to sign their names on their drawings and listen to stories. At Explorations they also get to talk about the frogs and fish in the aquarium and learn basic concepts of mathematics by using everyday tools like measuring tape and rulers standard fare for preschool kids.
Family-child-care program guidelines vary by state and provider, so parents must do their due diligence when looking for a family child care home. The National Association for Family Child Care (NAFCC) has a searchable database for accredited providers. Accreditation is the only nationally uniform set of standards for family-child-care providers, whereas regulations vary by state. Also, the NACCRRA offers a checklist that helps parents evaluate whether a program is right for their child.
"Some states don't have regulations at all, while others only regulate certain size [programs]," says Diana Webb, who works with family child care providers in Rochester, N.Y. New York State's regulations, for instance, require that any licensed family-child-care program have an educational component to it. Group size varies among providers and states.
Costs range widely, too, but Suzanne Williamson, president of the NAFCC, says a middle of the road cost would be $100 to $250 a week. More expensive set-ups can match or even exceed pricey preschools, but parents should keep in mind these programs sometimes run five days a week for 10 hours a day good for working parents who need a child-care program with flexibility.
Whether it's because of preschool's high tuition prices or personal preference, some parents want to totally take charge of their child's early development and learning.
Even though she could afford preschool for her 4-year-old son, Henderson, the stay-at-home mother of three in Tustin, Calif., decided not to send him. "I loved the school, but when it came down to it, it just goes against who I am to pay that much," she says of the $500 a month tuition. "I think it's a waste of money. I can do it at home on my own, on my own time frame."
Home schooling can prep a child just as well as for kindergarten as a traditional preschool. In fact, says Laura Derrick, president of the National Home Education Network, "a lot of preschool and kindergarten activities were designed to mimic what happens in the family setting if the children were actually at home: They learn to clean up, organize. Some are academic things, but a lot of it is the social component."
Geralyn Jacobs, a professor at University of South Dakota's Early Childhood and Elementary Education program, notes myriad ways parents can prepare their child for later formal education: Read to them daily, help them write letters to relatives, take them to the library, point out interesting things as they go shopping, make sure they have time to play with other children. She also recommends parents look at their state's early learning guidelines to see the kinds of things their children can be learning.
There's a fairly extensive online home-schooling community parents can access to ensure they are preparing their kids for kindergarten. A to Z Home's Cool offers curriculum and lesson ideas, educational web sites and links to other home-school groups. The National Home Education Network is another resource for parents who want to learn more about home schooling. The Home School Legal Defense Association has information on the kinds of regulations each state has regarding home schooling.