Early-Childhood Education:States Already on the Move

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At a time when national education leaders have begun to turn their attention to the elementary level of schooling, the states have already cranked up an unprecedented level of policymaking activity focused on child care and early-childhood education, an informal Education Week survey suggests.

At least 28 states have recently enacted early-childhood-education initiatives, and a growing number of others are considering such initiatives.

So intense has the legislative interest been that the National Conference of State Legislatures cites early-childhood education and child care as the "most significant new areas of legislative activity in education in 1985."

"Child care and early-childhood education seem firmly established on the legislative agendas in many states, with the breadth of initiatives going far beyond school-based programs," the group says.

"Nationwide, political support for early-childhood programs has never been stronger," agreed Lawrence J. Schweinhart, director of the Voices for Children Project of the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, sponsor of a research project considered one of the leading indicators of the significance of early schooling.

"We're looking at a qualitative expansion, an expansion to a new stage of interest," he said. "There's a move toward bills that are taken seriously by larger numbers of legislators."

The early-childhood-education initiatives enacted and under consideration range from programs for 3- and 4-year-olds to before- and after-school child care, and from Head Start-type programs run by local community agencies to full-day kindergarten programs.

In some states, lawmakers have also moved to enact measures, aimed at the elementary grades, that limit teacher-student ratios and provide for more individualized attention. (See related stories on this page and following page.)

And in some states, including Arkansas, Kentucky, and Washington, education officials have set up panels to examine issues related to pre-kindergarten schooling and child care.

Now in 'Public Arena'

Legislators and others say the heightened legislative activity stems from a growing awareness that children who have participated in preschool programs perform substantially better in their schoolwork than children who have not. An expanding body of research, they say, also points to the benefit of high-quality early-intervention programs for at-risk young children, a fourth of whom live in poverty.

"We've had the data for a long, long time," said Sharon Lynn Kagan, assistant professor of education at Yale University's Child Study Center. "What's happening now is that it's getting out in the public arena."

Often cited is the Perry Preschool Project, a longitudinal study conducted by High/Scope that documented a $7 return to society for every $1 invested in preschool programs in terms of lower dropout, teen-age pregnancy, and crime rates, and greater success in school and employment.

A number of state policymakers who worked to enact preschool programs said the High/Scope project was instrumental in the passage of key legislation.

The wider education-reform movement has also spurred the legislative activity, suggested Barbara Bowman, director of graduate studies for the Erickson Institute, a Loyola University affiliate involved in child-development studies.

"It's obviously a part of the excellence-in-education pressure, the emphasis on academic achievement," she said. "And that is related to world politics and world economics," the realization that increasing numbers of young children are not going to be successful in a technological age unless they are better prepared.

Working and Parenting

Other observers cite the link to workforce demographics. By 1990, an estimated 80 percent of children under 6 will have working mothers, according to census data; 50 percent of them will need formal day care.

The percentage of 3- and 4-year-old children in early-childhood-education programs has almost doubled in the last 13 years, according to High/Scope, going from 21 percent in 1970 to 38 percent in 1983.

An estimated 63 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds--some 4.4 million children--receive some federal assistance to participate in early-childhood programs, according to High/Scope. But experts say that even though it is now the largest provider of such services, the federal government cannot meet the growing demand for early-childhood programs, and that is why state governments are assuming more responsibility than ever for preschool education.

Special-Needs Children

Perhaps among the most innovative early-childhood-education measures, many experts suggest, are programs that identify and provide schooling to 3- and/or 4-year-old children with special needs--those that are economically disadvantaged, determined to be "at risk" of future academic failure, or in some other way developmentally disabled.

Of the nine states that have recently adopted legislation for educating at-risk students, South Carolina is often cited by experts in the field as exemplary.

The state, which has funded early-childhood programs since 1971, last year allocated $2.4 million--as part of its Education Improvement Act of 1984--toward half-day child-development programs in the public schools for 4-year-olds with "predicted significant readiness deficiencies." The program is accompanied by an evaluation system designed by High/Scope and has inspired calls from officials in about half of the states seeking information.

The initiative, which served 5,900 children last year, is expected to serve more than 10,000 of the state's 12,000 to 18,000 at-risk children by 1988-89, at a cost of $16.3 million, according to state figures.

"The timing and climate were right" for the legislation, said Hannah Meadors, early-childhood/elementary program and policy adviser to Gov. Richard W. Riley. Lawmakers, she added, began to say that preschool programs made economic sense.

South Carolina's actions have already had some impact, Ms. Meadors noted. Officials have seen increased readiness scores, more parental involvement, and healthier children. "These are hard to measure," she noted, "but inevitably it's going to make a difference in how the children perform in school and even stay in school."

Policymakers and lawmakers in eight other states have followed a similar route this year, many of them authorizing funds for at-risk children in order to maximize students' chances for later school success. For example:

Texas lawmakers allocated $50 million for early-childhood-education legislation. Under the measure, any district may offer a preschool program, but a district is required to offer one if it has a certain number of 4-year-olds who either are not fluent in English or are from poor families.

"Texas has vaulted to a position of leadership with its financial commitment to statewide early-childhood programs," said Mr. Schweinhart of High/Scope.

In Illinois, lawmakers approved a $12-million initiative, a substantial part of which will help identify the state's 18,000 at-risk 4-year-olds and establish programs to serve them.

Legislators in Massachusetts approved some $4 million in grants for early-childhood programs and earmarked 75 percent of the funds for services to low-income children.

In Missouri, the legislature provided $2.8 million to fund an enabling act signed by Gov. John Ashcroft last year that will allow districts to conduct developmental screening, parent-education programs, and early-childhood programs for developmentally delayed children.

Michigan officials approved $1 million for pilot programs designed to identify preschoolers with learning disabilities.

And in Washington, following a recommendation by Gov. Booth Gardner that the preschool enrollment of at-risk children be doubled by 1988, the state legislature recently appropriated $40,000 to plan education programs for 5,000 at-risk 4-year-olds. The programs must be funded by July 1987.

Similar measures have also been approved by lawmakers in Louisiana, Maryland, and New Mexico.

Programs for 4-Year-Olds

Although lively debate continues over the question of when children are "ready" to begin formal schooling, some states are also looking into programs for all 4-year-olds, and in some cases for 3-year-olds.

Education commissioners in California, Connecticut, and New York, as well as the mayor of New York City, have endorsed universal schooling for 4-year-olds.

State efforts in this area include: recommendations by panels in Kentucky, Massachusetts, and North Carolina that public schools provide some form of preschool/child-care programs for 3- and 4-year-olds; a task force named to study schooling of 3- and 4-year-olds in South Carolina; the recommendation in Michigan by a gubernatorial panel that the legislature establish a commission to study providing programs for all 4-year-olds; and the recommen-dation in Connecticut that the state look to alternate programs that serve 4-year-olds instead of calling for universal schooling.

Expanded Funding

In addition, in states where policymakers and educators have had a long-term commitment to providing early-childhood programs, lawmakers have continued this year to increase funding for preschool programs.

In New York, which has funded programs since 1966, legislators increased funding for pre-kindergarten programs from $8 million to $14 million, according to Christopher Carpenter, a spokesman for the New York State Department of Education.

"I don't see a rescission of this funding," Mr. Carpenter said. "In fact, I see it likely that it will increase. In principle, most of the regents and the commissioner would like to see more pre-kindergarten activity. The question is one of money."

In California, which has spent8substantially more than other states--approximately $300 million this year--on child-care and preschool projects, the state education department oversees programs that provide services to migrant children, a half-day preschool program, and family child-care networks.

"I would encourage any legislative body to seriously consider funding an articulated program of child care and development services because of the demonstrated economic and educational benefits of such programs," said Robert A. Cervantes, assistant superintendent and director of the education department's child-development division.

"We have begun to show some benefits," said Mr. Cervantes, who noted that the legislature considered 53 bills related to child development in its last session. Those gains have come in the areas of cost-effectiveness, keeping families together, and preparing children for kindergarten.

"But this didn't happen overnight," he cautioned. "It's been an evolving process."

Vol. 05, Issue 07

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