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Preschoolers' Education Takes Center Stage

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Last October's White House conference on child care was meant to spark a national conversation about the needs of young children.

And it has. Throughout the country, state spending on preschool is growing. Efforts to improve child care are under way. And never before has there been such interest in how babies grow and develop.

The question now is whether policymakers intend to make a long-term financial commitment to an age group that for generations has been served through a mixture of public and private programs, or simply stayed at home until starting kindergarten.

"Now we're having a political discussion," said Faith Wohl, the executive director of the Child Care Action Campaign, a New York City advocacy group. "But I think the jury is still out on what we're going to have when all the talking stops."

With a handful of states moving toward universal access to preschool, the debate is also broadening from how to provide services to low-income children to how to design programs that are appropriate for children from a variety of backgrounds.

Academics or Convenience?

Some observers wonder whether state leaders are truly concerned about children's readiness for school or are merely trying to appeal to their constituents by proposing convenient programs that many middle-class parents can already afford.

Expanded programs for preschoolers also place higher demands on early-childhood teachers, who often don't have the professional training that may be called for.

With most states' economies strong, spending on early-childhood programs has been rising, according to a 50-state National Governors' Association survey released in December.

In addition, a separate study from the Children's Defense Fund, a Washington-based advocacy group, found 21 states last year had bolstered funding for programs that serve preschool-age children.

At the federal level, it's still uncertain if Congress will support more spending on child care this year. But what the government is doing is spending money on large research projects that will ultimately provide more information about the kinds of programs that best serve children in their earliest years.

"There is a fair amount of money flowing in terms of basic research and applied research," said Robert Pianta, an education professor at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

In the fall, the U.S. Department of Education will begin following 23,000 kindergartners in 1,000 schools. The study will continue until the children complete 5th grade. And in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the Education Department will begin a long-term study of 11,000 babies born in 2000.

'Broad Social Investment'

Margretta Fairweather, who works for the New York state education department, calls Aug. 20, 1997, the day her life changed. That's the day the state's new universal prekindergarten program became law.

"It's the most challenging thing that anyone has done around here in a long time," said Ms. Fairweather, the leader of the department's child, family, and community-services team.

The state plans to spend $500 million over the next four years to implement the program, which will eventually be open to any 4-year-old, regardless of family income. First to offer it in the fall will be 124 districts, with the rest that want to provide the program phased in over time.

The California education department just last month issued a report that recommends universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds in the state within the next 10 years. The 53-member task force that wrote the report said that such a program would essentially "add two full grade levels of children to the public education system," at a cost of $5 billion a year. The committee also recommended spending $500 million in the next state budget to get the program rolling.

Kathy Lewis, a deputy superintendent in the department, acknowledges that there's a huge gap between that figure and the $25 million Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican, wants to spend to expand preschool programs for poor children. But she thinks the timing is right to spend money upfront to curtail teenage pregnancy, crime, and other problems down the line.

"People are starting to understand that prevention, while it might be expensive, is going to save us money in the long run," she said.

New Jersey, meanwhile, is spending $288 million this year to provide a half-day of preschool for 4-year-olds and full-day kindergarten in 125 of the most disadvantaged districts. Within those districts, the programs are open to any child.

The same is true in Connecticut, where a new program for 3- and 4-year-olds is serving roughly 3,500 children in 25 districts. But in that state, the program is free only to families on public assistance. A sliding-fee scale is used for families with higher incomes.

In Georgia, the first state to use a first-come, first-served approach to preschool, enrollment this coming fall will surpass 61,000 4-year-olds.

"The bottom line for me is that it is wonderful to have situations where kids are not separated by income," said Gina Adams, a senior program associate at the Children's Defense Fund. "It's useful to have people understand that this is a broad social investment. This is investing in all of our kids."

Ms. Adams, however, stresses that publicly financed programs should still focus on reaching children whose parents cannot afford private preschool.

Public Schools' Role?

At the heart of this growing emphasis on preschool are questions about the role of public schools in serving children before kindergarten.

Nowhere was that more apparent than in Vermont earlier this year when a state lawmaker introduced legislation that would have required all schools to offer programs for 3- and 4-year-olds.

"We passed an equal-opportunity-education law, and my feeling was that unless all children had adequate preschool training, it wouldn't be equal," said Rep. William Suchmann, a Republican.

Lawmakers there decided to review the current state of preschool programs.

In addition to New Jersey's prekindergarten program, which is part of the state's new school funding law, a recommendation pending before the state supreme court could heap even more responsibility on the state for the education of preschoolers.

In Abbott v. Burke, the decades-old case about ensuring a thorough and efficient education for all students, a judge is recommending that the state add all-day preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds in 28 largely urban districts. Attorney General Peter Verniero has argued that this plan would exceed the state's constitutional obligations. A decision by the high court is expected soon.

Clearly, a ruling in favor of the plan would take the state's involvement to a new level.

"As soon as you fund [preschool] through the school aid formula, that makes it more formal," said Allan R. Odden, a school finance expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a consultant in the New Jersey case.

Whether preschool programs could become the subject of future legal challenges over equity is still up in the air, he added.

For the most part, efforts to expand early-childhood programs are far less drastic. While most people agree that schools play an important role in serving younger children, few are arguing that they should carry the burden alone.

Most proposals to expand preschool call for services to be offered in a variety of places, including private child-care centers, home-based programs, and public school classrooms. Even churches are receiving state funds to run nonreligious programs.

But some observers warn that such collaboration will inevitably invite more government regulation of private providers.

No Inoculation

While educators, particularly those at the elementary level, strongly support early-childhood education, they don't want the additional responsibility if it isn't accompanied by additional money.

"We have nothing against these partnerships, but we don't want the money to come from existing education funding," said Sally McConnell, the director of government relations for the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

Some have suggested that the growing sense of urgency about early intervention--and the belief that it will pay off later in terms of higher achievement, lower teenage-pregnancy rates, and less juvenile crime--will lead some lawmakers to neglect older populations of children.

Jack Berckemeyer, the director of member and affiliate services for the Columbus, Ohio-based National Middle School Association, said he believes it's wise for states to focus on the early years. But prevention, he said, doesn't address the immediate issues facing older students.

"When it comes to middle school education, we know it's our last, best chance to really mold and influence who they are going to be," he said. "We can't wait until we get a whole new batch of kids."

Mr. Pianta of the University of Virginia added that it's wrong to view early-childhood education as a silver bullet. "It's not inoculation, like if kids get this dose of resources that that is going to take care of them," he said.

And even some child advocates, who are obviously welcoming the swell of support for preschoolers, are also concerned that the needs of even younger children, particularly infants, are getting overlooked. Research has shown that infants are more likely than older children to be in poor-quality child-care settings.

Some observers disagree with the basic premise that governments should be in the business of creating preschool programs, regardless of whom they serve.

"If the schools are already failing, why would you expand their role?" said Darcy Olsen, an entitlements-policy analyst at the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank. "Besides, there's no consensus on what these kids need."

Richard C. Seder, from the Los Angeles-based Reason Public Policy Institute, added that while early-childhood programs have been shown to benefit poor youngsters, it's unclear whether they do anything for children from wealthier homes.

"To subsidize middle- and upper-income families is almost crazy," said Mr. Seder, the director of education studies at the institute, a free-market think tank.

Campaign Watching

With the number of preschool programs growing, it's not surprising that another conversation is intensifying--the one about what all these youngsters should be learning and who is going to teach it to them.

Since the national education goals, were unveiled in 1990, numerous efforts have sought to spell out the skills that children need to be "ready" for school--the first of the goals.

Adding to the mix is the comprehensive reading report the National Research Council released last month. It places a heavy emphasis on the importance of literacy development during the preschool years.

The report also recommends more training for early-childhood professionals in the fundamental literacy activities that prepare children for reading.

Focusing on young children is clearly a politically popular stand to take. But evidence that governors are taking the issue seriously lies in the fact that several have established new positions or assigned members of their staffs to work specifically on children's issues. Others have appointed entire committees.

Gov. Roy Romer of Colorado, a Democrat, helped initiate the trend in 1987 with his First Impressions program, which now has nine people who work exclusively on early-childhood policy and programs.

And earlier this year, Democratic Gov. Paul E. Patton of Kentucky created an office for early-childhood development, which will study and coordinate existing efforts in the state to serve young children.

One change that could slow this momentum is that the governors who have led in this area, including Mr. Romer, his fellow Democrats Lawton Chiles of Florida and Zell Miller of Georgia, and Republican George V. Voinovich of Ohio, are finishing up their final terms this year.

"The destiny of child care is in the states," said the Child Care Action Campaign's Ms. Wohl. In the approaching election season, "it will be interesting to see who campaigns on this issue, to see how the conversation translates to the polls."

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