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Chiefs Back Plan Calling for More Early-Years Aid

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Indianapolis--The nation's chief state school officers last week endorsed a comprehensive early-childhood and family-education plan calling for universal access to prekindergarten programs, publicly supported day care, and increased federal involvement in efforts to help children at risk of school failure.

Without extensive early-intervention efforts focused on the growing numbers of such children, the school chiefs said in a report to be forwarded to U.S. Secretary of Education Lauro F. Cavazos, the nation cannot hope to reduce the dropout rate, improve student performance, or effectively compete internationally in the 21st century.

The action at its annual meeting here puts the Council of Chief State School Officers on an expanding list of educational and advocacy groups calling for increases in the size and scope of early-childhood programs.

The chiefs' report, one of the more extensive to date in the field, ''symbolizes a national consensus that a major policy initiative needs to be undertaken," said Ted Sanders, the Illinois state superintendent and president of the council.

Last month, the National Association of State Boards of Education adopted a policy statement with similar resonances. Like that document, which stressed developmental readiness, the chiefs' report urges that programs for young children "guard against inappropriate use of assessment instruments for placement and labeling."

Leaders of the group will present the early-childhood recommendations, as well as recommendations adopted on teacher preparation and vocational-education funding, to Secretary Cavazos in a meeting planned for Dec. 7. (See related story on page 12.)'

"It's time to put up," Mr. Raynolds said of programs targeting the preschool population. "We fall a little farther behind every year we don't do this."

The report comprises both a policy statement and a program guide for use by states in developing early-childhood programs. The ccsso has also compiled a 628-page directory of existing state programs, which is said to be the most extensive yet developed.

Focus on Children 'At Risk'

The early-childhood initiative is a product of the council's two-year emphasis on programs to ensure educational success for all students.

Its report recommends that all states guarantee access to prekindergarten programs for all children considered to be educationally at risk. Currently, only school districts in 24 states and the District of Columbia offer prekindergarten programs.

The report says that "universal access for all children" to such programs should be "the ultimate goal," but that, initially, the target group should be children in need.

Comprehensive early-childhood programs should contain both day care and developmentally appropriate education components, according to the chiefs. The programs should include health, social services, nutrition, transportation, and adult basic-education components, the report says.

Providers of such preschool services could come from the private sector, it says, but direction and oversight should be maintained by the appropriate state or local education agency, with the aid, where possible, of local advisory councils.

Among its 17 recommendations, the report also suggests that the federal government expand its funding to states for early-childhood education, family education, and child care.

The chiefs emphasized--both in the report and in discussions here--the critical role of family-education initiatives, such as parenting-skills programs and outreach programs for the delivery of prenatal care and other early health services.

Mr. Raynolds also emphasized the need for "high quality" early-childhood programs. Although no funding recommendations were made for individual programs, the report notes that in one high-quality intervention program, the price tag amounts to $5,000 annually per child.

State support for prekindergarten programs currently ranges from8$1,000 to $2,700 per child, according to the report.

'Barriers To Anticipate'

Although Mr. Raynolds predicted in discussions here that the growing support from national groups would help gain enactment for early-intervention initiatives in some states, others were less optimistic.

Alan Morgan, state superintendent in New Mexico, said after the meeting that the recommendations were heading in the right direction but that there "are going to be some barriers we need to anticipate."

The tough economic times facing many states, he said, would make early intervention's cost a stumbling block. And the role of private providers must be carefully sorted out, he said, because that sector can be a powerful influence on the success or failure of the chiefs' efforts.

Mr. Morgan also indicated that some among the public--and in state legislatures--might see aspects of the plan as further eroding the traditional role of the family.

Unless partnerships can be developed with families, private providers, and others, he said "our chances for success are limited."

Question of 'Urgency'

In debate over the initiative, Betty Castor, Florida's commissioner of education, expressed misgivings about the wording of the report. She questioned why the recommendation for increased federal fundingel10lhad been the last of 17 items listed.

"It would seem to me that the recommendations ought to reflect a little more urgency on the funding side," said Ms. Castor.

The chiefs agreed to move federal funding up to number seven on the list, making it the first item under the heading of national support.

Van Mueller, the representative of the National pta at the meeting, called passage of the recommendations a "major breakthrough" that would move public schools out of the traditional K-12 configuration. But he, too, noted a lack of urgency in the report's tone.

"You can read the paper and wonder if it's not business as usual," he said, noting the difficulty of stretching limited state resources to cover the preschool level. School districts themselves have not been urging the states to expand their responsibilities, he added.

A Federal-Tax Solution?

Jule M. Sugarman, director of the social- and health-services department in Washington State and one of the founders of the federal Head Start program in the 1960's, said that the only way to provide adequate funding for early-intervention programs may be the enactment of a specific new nationwide tax.

A featured speaker at the chiefs' meeting, Mr. Sugarman noted that even Head Start, a politically popular and successful program, receives minimum funding and serves only 15 to 20 percent of the eligible children.

It is time, he said, for a "bold, very difficult step": the enactment of a federal tax whose revenues would be channeled to a children's trust fund.

Mr. Sugarman suggested that the Congress adopt a 0.3 percent income tax on both employers and employees. He said such a tax would generate $20 billion a year after five years.

"In my view, the crisis we face is now so great that we don't have any real option," said Mr. Sugarman. "It's too late to start remedial action if you wait for the children to enter school."

Pledge on Head Start

Undersecretary of Education Linus Wright, who cut short a vacation to assure the chiefs that President-elect George Bush was committed to education, repeated the Vice President's assertions that, if federal funds become available, Head Start will be fully funded.

The U.S. Education Department has not taken a position on early-childhood and day-care legislation, said Mr. Wright. But officials may formulate such a position, he said, following a conference on the subject that was scheduled to begin late last week.

The undersecretary added, however, that officials were aware of the issue's importance. "We have to put the dollars where they count, and that's in the early years," he said.

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