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Preschool Access Linked To Where a Family Lives

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Families' access to preschool programs varies widely depending on the part of the country they live in and the wealth of their community, a new report concludes.

The study suggests "the market is failing to equitably distribute affordable services across regions of the country, and among rich, working-class, and impoverished communities,'' said Bruce Fuller, an associate professor of education and public policy at Harvard University.

The report by Mr. Fuller and Xiaoyan Liang, a doctoral student, was scheduled to be released this week. It analyzes data collected by Mathematica Policy Research Inc. and the Urban Institute for a study commissioned by the U.S. Education Department and the Health and Human Services Department.

The study looked at the supply of preschools in 100 counties in 36 states, including Head Start programs, independent nonprofit centers, for-profit centers, and programs in churches and schools.

While preschools are available to one in five 3- to 5-year-olds in the nation's most affluent counties, the study found, they are available to only one in 77 in the poorest counties.

The report also shows that twice as many preschools are available to poor and working-class families in the Northeast as in the South, and that even in states where supply is high, access is much lower in poor and rural areas.

Among the localities surveyed, supply was highest in New York City; Washington; Arlington, Va.; and Fairfield, Conn.

'Yuppie Supply Effect'

About 4 million children attend some 80,000 preschool programs nationwide, the study found.

Supply was highest in areas heavily populated by young parents earning high wages--a phenomenon the authors termed "the yuppie supply effect.''

The availability of government subsidies also tended to increase the supply of centers in urban neighborhoods with many poor families, the report notes.

Programs were much less available in poor rural communities in the South and Midwest, which Mr. Fuller said could reflect a "weaker'' community-action movement, a lower demand for women in the workforce, and greater reliance on extended family for day care.

Working-class communities, meanwhile, lacked both access to subsidies and the money to pay for nonsubsidized programs.

The study found female workforce participation had little effect over the growth of preschools when county wealth was taken into account, suggesting that many affluent mothers who do not work enroll their children in preschool at least part time.

The authors also found no evidence that tight regulation of centers constrained preschool supply or that subsidized programs contributed to the "erosion of family structures''--two concerns that have been raised by conservatives.

But they did note that counties with few centers per capita are more heavily populated by "traditional'' families, while areas with high divorce rates tend to have more preschools--albeit of uneven quality.

Mr. Fuller said the study has implications for the debate over how to shore up Head Start, which Congress is currently considering.

"The findings suggest at least some money should be spent in trying to reduce these inequities in supply'' as well as in improving program quality and teacher salaries, Mr. Fuller said.

The study also maintains expanding the availability of care is critical to moving mothers off of welfare.

Copies of the report, "The Unfair Search for Child Care: Working Moms, Poverty, and the Unequal Supply of Preschools Across America,'' are available for $15 each from Helen Rodriguez, 427 Gutman Library, Appian Way, Cambridge, Mass. 02138.

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