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Early Education on Legislative Docket in N.Y.

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All-day kindergarten and pre-kindergarten are emerging as a top 1997 priority of leaders of the New York Assembly, a move observers say may signal that states are taking a new look at the early grades.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and education committee Chairman Steven Sanders, both Democrats, are championing the benefits of early education and calling on the Assembly, the legislature's lower house, to expand public school programs for all New York children.

"The best learning results from a strong educational base in early childhood," Mr. Silver said at a recent New York School Boards Association meeting. "We must not condemn any child to less than every opportunity to succeed in the new global economy, and that means providing them the level playing field of full-day kindergarten."

About 63,000 children in New York state do not have full-day kindergarten in their schools. Most kindergarten students in the state, about 153,000, attend full-day programs.

Nationally, more young children are attending all-day kindergarten and preschool programs than ever before. In 1970, for example, only 17 percent of children were enrolled in such programs; by 1994, that figure had jumped to 46.2 percent, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Although the decision to expand early childhood programs has typically been made at the local level, the matter is winning the interest of more and more state lawmakers.

The legislature in New Hampshire this year passed a bill that provides $5 million in state funding for kindergarten programs--a first in the Granite State. And Gov.-elect Jeanne Shaheen has promised to push for greater kindergarten access there next year.

In South Carolina, lawmakers spent $14 million to expand all-day kindergarten programs. Officials in California, meanwhile, made a particularly bold move, setting aside $771 million to reduce class sizes in kindergarten and grades 1-3. ("95% of Calif. Districts Get Aid To Cut Class Size," This Week's News.)

Education officials in Massachusetts are asking their state to spend $100 million in its fiscal 1998 budget to expand all-day kindergarten and other early education programs.

"The crocuses are finally blooming around early childhood education," said Anthony Ward, the executive director of the privately funded Carnegie Task Force on Learning in the Primary Grades. "It's an area where there's been very little investment, but a sure-fire way to improve the quality of a child's education. This is something we know."

Child-Care Needs Cited

In New York, Assembly Democrats are pointing to research and common sense as they try to build support for the full-day kindergarten and pre-K proposals.

"Starting at age 4, this comprehensive plan would be a critical first experience for our children, offering them an enriched social setting and helping working parents by providing quality child-care," Mr. Silver said.

Mr. Sanders, a co-sponsor of the plan, said that parents "overwhelming support" public preschool programs and all-day kindergarten.

"Parents want a safe, reliable place where their children will learn and flourish," he said. "It's absolutely mind-boggling that these programs aren't available in this state, especially given what we've learned from research on the development of children in the last 10 years, research that's shown what children are missing if we don't take advantage of these years."

Because most children in New York have working parents, and the state, like others, faces new welfare requirements stipulating that people on public assistance go to work or possibly face losing their benefits, more young children than ever need care while parents are on the job, supporters of the plan note.

The demand for expanded early childhood programs is also fueled by data showing that children entering elementary school from high-quality preschool and all-day kindergarten settings are less likely to need special education, less likely to fail in the early grades, and generally better prepared to meet the academic and social demands in 1st grade and beyond.

A two-year study by the Carnegie task force, released this fall, concluded that during the preschool years children make "developmental leaps" that form the basis of later achievement. ("Carnegie Offers Reform Strategy for Ages 3 to 10," Sept. 18, 1996.)

"To get all students ready for school and for an education that meets high standards of achievement," the report said, "the task force recommends that the nation make a commitment to expanding high-quality public and private early care and education for children ages 3 to 5, supported by national, state, and local mechanisms."

A Good Idea

Education groups support the New York expansion plan.

John Charlson, a spokesman for the New York Education Association, said the union backs the proposal "as long as certified teachers make up the staff."

Staffing early education programs can be a vexing problem, experts say.

Most private preschool programs can't afford to attract or retain certified teachers, resulting in high turnover at a time when children need continuity. A state-run program would be more likely to bring a professional, certified staff that would be better paid, stemming the attrition problem.

William J. Pape, a spokesman for the New York school boards' group, praised the attention the issue is getting.

"Everyone talks about higher standards and achievement, and our view is that pre-K is vital to this movement--part of any workable strategy to improve student performance," he said.

The largest stumbling block for state legislators isn't selling the benefits of early childhood programs, but paying the cost.

Although advocates of early education tout the long-term cost-effectiveness of the programs, they require substantial startup funds. A proposal last year by Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey Ross to expand the state-run prekindergarten program to include all poor 4-year-olds would have cost $117 million a year.

The plan was rejected by her fellow Republican, Gov. George E. Pataki.

Mr. Sanders said the cost of the Democrats' universal all-day kindergarten and prekindergarten proposal would be determined as the plan is put into writing in the coming months.

But regardless of the cost, Mr. Sanders said, "there are real economic benefits to this program, and there's no excuse for the state not to move ahead with it."

"We're going to work this out," he said.

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