— The first state to adopt universal pre-K and universal preschool, Wisconsin’s first two-year-olds are now in classrooms.
And as the state prepares to begin its third school year, it’s making an even more ambitious plan: Make preschool free to all.
With the state’s first preschool program set to open in October, parents in the state are already paying $500 a month to have their children enrolled.
But as more preschoolers arrive, the state is also offering up to $2,500 to help families afford to get them there.
The state says about 25,000 children in its public school system have never received a preschool education.
“There are so many children who will never be able to go to preschool,” said Stephanie Daugherty, the governor’s director of preschool education and learning, which includes the Milwaukee-based National Council of Counties.
“And the most cost-effective way to ensure that we’re doing what’s right is to make preschool free.”
But to do that, Wisconsin is rolling out a program that combines an early childhood program with a state-of-the-art preschool for the first time in a century.
The state is making its first preschool available to everyone with incomes up to and including $25,000, and the program will be free for families who qualify.
The new preschool will be called The Good Start, and it’s the first of its kind in the United States.
The preschool will include basic reading, writing, math and science.
There will be classes on nutrition, health and safety, transportation, safety for children and more.
The program will cost about $100 per child, and about 1,000 preschoolers will enroll.
That will give the state about 1.8 million children access to preschool, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services.
The state is hoping to create a “tremendous multiplier” on the existing preschool program, said Scott G. Ritchie, the deputy secretary of the state.
Ritchie says Wisconsin has an opportunity to create something that will benefit children and their families in the coming years, and he believes it’s time to start.
Parents and educators are still trying to work out how to implement the program, and many are skeptical.
They fear that some parents might be unable to afford the preschool, which will be more expensive than many of the other early childhood programs the state offers.
While preschool costs are not a household budget, a lot of families struggle to afford it, said Julie A. Johnson, the executive director of the Wisconsin Early Childhood Development Council.
But Johnson said she hopes the new preschool program will help bring affordable preschool to families.
“If you want to help children and families, I think it’s important to offer something that is affordable,” she said.
That could mean putting more emphasis on helping families afford the cost of preschool and giving parents more control over what their children get to see.
“I think this is an important time to offer families that we have more options now,” Johnson said.
“There are a lot more families now who don’t have the opportunity to have preschool and we’re going to have to find ways to make that easier for them.”
It also could mean more choices for parents.
As the state has been rolling out the new early childhood services, a new study from the state found that parents who wanted to opt out of preschool were more likely to do so than parents who did not.
The study also found that those who chose to opt-out had a better start in school.
“The evidence is that families who want to opt in have more opportunities for a successful preschool program,” said Dr. Richard J. Mott, a preschool expert at the University of Wisconsin School of Public Health.
The goal is to be able for families to have a preschool that is more personalized and accessible for their children, Mott said.
But there are still concerns about the new program, including how many preschoolers the state plans to enroll.
Some experts worry that it’s too early to know whether the new programs will be effective, because many of its early childhood components are still being developed.
Another concern is whether the preschool program is even sustainable.
It’s unclear whether the state will be able pay for preschool, and that could have a ripple effect on other programs.
The budget for early childhood development is $30 million, and Wisconsin already has some of the most expensive preschools in the country.
To pay for the preschool programs, the Legislature passed a package of bills that includes more than $1 billion in new funding for preschool.
The first phase of the program is set to start in October.
But even if the preschool funding is sufficient, the first phase will be a challenge, said Dr.
“It will be difficult to get children into preschool,” Johnson told ABC News.
“We’ve got to find the money.”