Notes on Universal Pre-K & Enrollment Projections (12/2/19 Roundtable Agenda)

School Enrollment Estimates to 2030 & Universal Pre-K Study

Our Joint Roundtable with the School Committee n December 2, 2019, will discuss the Universal Pre-K delivery options report. I’ve tried to summarize some long documents here. The complexity and costs of offering an additional year of publicly subsidized education so that all 4-year-olds have a high-quality pre-school experience are evident in what follows and the options will take further study and discussion before a plan is agreed upon.

See meeting materials for the 12/2/19 Joint Roundtable.

I. Enrollment Forecasting

As part of the Universal Pre-K (UPK) cost and feasibility analysis, the City commissioned a study to project enrollment up to 2030, and if all children age 4 as of Sept. 1 of any given school year were eligible to enroll in public Junior Kindergarten (JK).

Currently, only children who are 4 by April 1 are eligible for JK, effectively providing an additional year of public school to some families and not others.

It was assumed that 90% of 4-years-olds would enroll in UPK were offered. Currently, only 60-70% of eligible 4-year-olds enroll in JK.

This year’s actual enrollment in JK is 333 students. With UPK, enrollment could be 822 JK students at 90% enrollment. By 2030, JK demand could be 943 students. 

The study also looked at whether adding UPK would tend to increase enrollment in K-12 grades with growth of 1.5% called “average” and growth of 3.5% called “maximum.” A third possibility of UPK having no impact at all on K-12 enrollment was also considered and called “original.”

The study projected enrollment for K-12 based on two rates of grade-progression (“low” and “standard”). “Low” matches grade progression trends in the period prior to 2010 when enrollment dropped off from 8th grade on; however, once the renovated high school opened in 2011, enrollment in grades 9-12 increased significantly and that’s the “standard” rate of grade-progression used. (NB: It seems reasonable to me to think that the “standard” rate is the new normal.)

For the population/housing estimates they looked at possible additional growth over the actual growth new housing units from 2000-2014 (6,968), the number created from 2015-17 (1,938) and the expected growth between 2018-30 (9,920) with current zoning. (NB: This about 25% fewer units than the 12,500 new units that Envision targeted to add with zoning changes like “super inclusionary” and “environmental performance” density bonuses.)

Under the current zoning the “additional annual new units” over the pre-2014 growth rate is calculated at 326 new units per year.

Each new unit of housing is expected to add .071 public school students for market-rate housing and .086 for affordable units.

Thus, adding 326 additional new units annually is expected to add 24 additional new students per year, which cumulatively yields at total of 166 additional new students in all grades by 2030. (NB: The number would be greater with zoning changes and as many as 12,500 units, but that is not calculated. Assume over 200 in all grades.)

Finally, layering all these projections on top of each other we are given a graph that shows six scenarios for K-12 enrollment growth up to 2030. 

According to this study, actual K-12 enrollment in 2018-19 was 6,489 (this excludes charter school and out of district placements). 

The lowest estimate is 6,845 by 2030 (+356 students over the 2018-19 in-district figure used enrollment in the study). This assumes we will go back to the pre-2010 “low” rate of grade progression to high school and there will be no UPK effect whatsoever.

The highest estimate is 8,057 by 2030 (+1,568 students). This assumes the now “standard” rate of grade progression and the maximum UPK effect of 3.5%.

Every one of the six enrollment scenarios shows growth in K-12 students that will put additional demands on our school facilities and budget. (NB: Per pupil spending for FY18 was $29,478, and the School Budget went up 5.6% in FY20.)

Elementary enrollment is expected to increase by 20% by 2030-31, requiring 37 new K-8 classrooms. This would bring the total of K-8 classrooms up to 189 from 152 in 2020-21.

II. Universal Pre-K: Evaluation of 2 Models

Since the Early Childhood Task Force report was issued in Nov. 2015 both the Council and the School Committee have continued to press for a plan to offer “Universal” Pre-K to more of our 4-year-old population. To qualify as “Universal” eligibility would be based solely on age, not on income or eligibility for public subsidies.

A consultant was hired to evaluate two models for UPK: 

Model 1: In the public school system. This typically would operate during the school-year only for 6 hours a day, and would be free to all families regardless of income. 

  • This would require changes to the school curriculum, staff credentials and training, and the learning environment (facilities).
  • The cost per student is estimated at $28,345 and with 1,051 age-eligible 4-yr olds (in 2029), the cost could be $29.8M PLUS $100-150M to build and renovate facilities.
  • We would need 45 classrooms for peak estimated enrollment (887 in 2029 at 90% enrollment of those 1,051 4-yr olds).
  • The swing space in the Longfellow and K-Lo Schools is needed through 2024 when the planned Tobin reconstruction will be complete, but could meet the raw space requirement for additional UPK classrooms — except that the buildings would need significant renovation to serve so many younger children and geographically the locations may not be ideal.
  • Apart from the cost, a downside is the potential that offering school-based UPK for 4-yr olds would drive community providers out of business with unintended consequences for the younger children (infants up to 3-yr olds) in those programs whose care costs providers more. Those programs offer full-year care so that would negatively impact many families who rely on that.
  • Without very significant capital investments to create new classrooms, we could not meet all the demand so the current situation where some children do not get into JK would continue.

Model 2: A mixed-service delivery system with some (more than today) 4-yr olds attending JK in public schools and others in a range of community programs, all offering high-quality early childhood ed and with some operating full day, year-round care. 

The mixed-service delivery system (Model 2) was the preferred approach of the Early Childhood Task Force and that does not seem to have changed with this study.

Mixed-service is also the most common model nationally. 

But the study clarifies that “universal” does not mean all 4-year-olds would be served because demand may exceed supply in either model.

The cost of a mixed-service delivery system would be less — about $22,692 per child or about $23.9M, but some of the cost could be recouped if families paid on a sliding scale. 

Within Model 2, each element considered is considered across a couple of options. (NB: The pros and cons of each are complex and the way it is laid out is confusing to follow).

Who is served in Model 2?

It could either be free to all (Option 1) or with tuition based on a sliding scale for families earning less than 300% of the federal poverty level (Option 2).

  • Helping to spur improvements to the quality of existing community programs has been a major priority since the 2015 Task Force report. We do not yet have the capacity to serve all 4-yr olds in high-quality programs.
  • If preference was given to lower income families (Option 2), a mixed service model might be able to accommodate some 3yos as well (chosen how?).

Where/how would the services be delivered in Model 2?

Option I is to keep existing JK programs as they are and try to expand and subsidize more high-quality seats in community programs. Option 2 convert the existing JK program in to Pre-K.

How would we incentivize more high-quality programs?

Option 1 would only accept programs already achieving a 3 or 4 quality rating. Option 2 would allow 2-3 years to attain a higher quality rating.

What approach to assuring workforce quality?

There are various options for what degrees would be required for leadership and lead and assistant teachers. Requiring a high level of education in order to work in a publicly subsidized programs may not be immediately feasible given the current workforce.

How would programs be selected to participate?

We’d need to develop criteria for which community programs would qualify for subsidies and how to compensate them (a per-site basis rather than a per seat basis is preferred).

How would students be recruited?

Either through a central office or by the individual partner-sites. 

How would UPK be governed and administered?

Either as it is now (jointly by CPSD and DHSP) or though a New Office of Early Learning.

Curriculum, Learning Environment (especially access to age-appropriate playgrounds), Schedule (full-day, year-round) and Family Engagement can’t be easily broken down into 2 options.

Other considerations:

In 71% of Cambridge families with children under 6 both parents work full-time, and full-day, full-year programs are essential to this group. Currently less than half of these programs meet the high-quality standard desired by the Task Force. And fewer than 25% of programs are even enrolled in the quality evaluation and currently have no incentive to do so. That would need to change.

Most of the existing community programs would have trouble reconfiguring their physical spaces to create classrooms that only include 4yos.

Many of the community programs serve non-resident children, too.

UPK school assignment probably would not be part of the controlled choice system used for K-12 school assignment, but that could result in more homogeneous classrooms since families may choose programs nearer where they live for convenience.


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Jan Devereux
City Councillor
Cambridge, MA