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Published in Print: February 6, 2002, as Business Group's Report Advocates 'Preschool for All'

Business Group's Report Advocates 'Preschool for All'

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The federal government should establish a new grant program for states to help pay for preschool education for all 3- and 4-year-olds, urges a report scheduled for release this week by the Washington-based Committee for Economic Development.

The U.S. government should also form an independent body that would ensure that such programs were meeting "acceptable standards for early education," the report says.

"For too long, the United States has paid lip service to the importance of preschool opportunities that prepare children for school without undertaking the level of investment needed to turn promise into reality," the authors write. "Just as we have long seen elementary and secondary education for all as a societal responsibility, we must now undertake to extend educational opportunity to all children age 3 and up."

Meeting that goal, however, would require the public sector to more than double what it is now spending on the care and education of children under age 5—about $25 billion annually, the authors estimate.

'More to Do'

Titled "Preschool for All: Investing in a Productive and Just Society," the report from the CED, a business-backed research and public-policy organization, comes a week after President Bush hinted in his State of the Union Address that he might propose a stronger role for the federal government in preschool education.

"There is more to do," the president said in his Jan. 29 speech. "We need to prepare our children to read and succeed in school with improved Head Start and early- childhood development programs."

Since his 2000 campaign, Mr. Bush has said he wants to move the Head Start preschool program, which is up for reauthorization by Congress next year, out of the Department of Health and Human Services and into the Department of Education to emphasize the education component of the program. Janet Hansen, a vice president of the CED and its director of education studies, said she believed it was important that the report provide some cost estimates and lay out "a sensible structure for how the states and the federal government should work together."

"It's going to be expensive," she acknowledged. "It's too easy to just say, 'Let's do this.' "

At a minimum, universal preschool would cost an additional $25 billion to $35 billion more than what is being spent now, and could reach an added $41.5 billion if the figure included those children who are already being served by Head Start and other public preschool programs, such as state-funded prekindergarten classes, according to the report.

While states would still play a central role in designing their public preschool programs and choosing which providers would offer those programs, the report argues that the federal government should provide "significant subsidies" that are tied to whether states complete strategic plans and meet federal standards for preschool education. The federal government's involvement, the report says, should focus on giving children from low-income families free access to part-day prekindergarten programs that are run during the school year. But it also says that the income threshold should be increased to include not just those who qualify for Head Start, but all children from families earning below 85 percent of their states' median family incomes.

States, according to the CED plan, would be responsible for making spaces available to parents above those income guidelines. And to put the plan in motion faster, the report says, states could pass some of the cost on to parents by using a sliding-fee scale.

What's more, because many working parents need their children to attend full-day prekindergarten programs, the report argues that states and the federal government should do a better job integrating child-care and education programs and should eliminate the rules that stand in the way of combining such services.

The report also stresses that instead of creating a new program model, states should continue to use a variety of preschool providers that include public schools, Head Start programs, and nonprofit and for-profit child- care centers.

'An Ambitious Commitment'

Some of the CED's trustees had concerns about some of the report's recommendations.

Arnold R. Weber, the president emeritus of Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., wrote that he had reservations about the price tag of the organization's plan, and he said that those served should be limited by some income criteria

"By any standards and in any economic environment, this is an ambitious commitment," he wrote.

Others argue that while it's important for the federal government to help states blend existing funds to provide more preschool services, states don't want to see more strings attached.

"The notion that the federal government knows best in this area is problematic," said Sheri Steisel, the senior director of human services at the Washington office of the National Conference of State Legislatures. "Most of the innovation in preschool has come from the states."

Vol. 21, Issue 21, Page 5

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