Ramos: French preschools teach us a few things
by Yulanda Essoka
Advocates of greater commitment to early childhood education have an influential ally in Philadelphia – current City Managing Director and former School Board President Pedro Ramos.
In 2000, Ramos received an Eisenhower Fellowship to spend three-and-a-half weeks in France on a trip he said was “to learn about how a society comes to make early childhood education a priority.” After studying the country’s political and public support for écoles maternelles, which are similar to American preschools, Ramos thinks we can learn something from the French.
Ramos said he attributes the limited funding for high quality early childhood education in Philadelphia to a “lack of public and political momentum.” In contrast, the French system is universal, fully financed, and free – well supported as an integral part of the nation’s education system.
At the time of his visit, France was experiencing 20 percent unemployment and budget cuts, but, remarkably, funding for early childhood education was increased.
The experience taught Ramos that the French viewed their expensive preschool program as “an economic necessity due to women joining the workforce in large numbers.” In addition, he remarked, “I was struck by the universality of the system. Everybody, not only the poor, got it. And everyone expected it. It was viewed as a middle class entitlement, not a poverty program.”
Ramos stated that preschool programming and funding need to be revamped in the city. “Philadelphia uses a triage approach, which places the neediest at the top. I know why it’s done, and it may be okay for resource allocation, but it’s not the best long-term strategy. Everyone is better off if you start with universal access.”
In addition to funding, Ramos believes that public perception is a major barrier prohibiting the implementation of universal preschool in Philadelphia. He offered, “Preschool is not a poverty program. It’s undervalued. The middle class benefits, as well as the poor.”
Changing such perceptions can be difficult, however, given educational politics in the city. “Oftentimes in Philadelphia education is about what is best for other people’s children, and the decision makers and users are often two different [sets of] people,” he said.
Due to different cultural and economic realities, Ramos does not advocate wholesale replication of the French system in Philadelphia. However, he said there are key elements that Philadelphia could mimic.
The French don’t merely provide lip service about preschool – they fund it and parents utilize it, Ramos said. Almost 95 percent of eligible French children take advantage of the country’s preschools. “They’re a national imperative,” concluded Ramos.