Advocates Urge More Federal Spending For Early-Childhood Programs

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If Washington lawmakers understood new findings in brain research, they would completely change their policies and funding for early-childhood programs, a panel of children's advocates told a Senate appropriations subcommittee last week.

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Brain development in the first three years of life is absolutely critical, and it's costly for educators to make up anything missed during that period, the panelists said. About 85 percent of development occurs in those first three years, said Dr. Bruce Perry, a professor of child psychology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.

"Recent developments have the capacity to transform culture," Dr. Perry said during a subcommittee hearing on the fiscal 1998 federal budget. He added that he feels "an incredible sense of frustration" knowing that most lawmakers and educators are unaware of research that could help solve some of the most daunting problems in education.

Two governors on the panel, though, said they had gotten the message and are trying to change policies in their states to focus more on advancing early-childhood development.

"We need to take heed," said Gov. Bob Miller of Nevada, a Democrat. "We have a duty to act on this research."

Programs such as Head Start are vitally important and should be expanded, said Republican Gov. George V. Voinovich of Ohio. Mr. Voinovich added that his state is using federal block grants to channel money to Head Start, Early Start, parent training, and other programs.

"It is discouraging that so many professionals in traditional education fields fail to see the learning value of early-childhood programs and view them strictly as competition for scarce funds," Mr. Voinovich said.

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Filmmaker Rob Reiner, who founded the "I Am Your Child" campaign to promote family and community involvement in raising children, said states and districts should use a four-pronged approach: high-quality health care, child care, parenting programs, and intervention programs for children at risk.

Mr. Reiner and the other panelists were in town for a White House conference to promote awareness of research on early-childhood development. ("Clinton Announces 5 Child-Care, Early-Years Initiatives," and "Awareness Campaign Puts Spotlight on improtance of Ages 0-3.")

Several senators on the subcommittee agreed that the federal government could exert a great deal of influence over early-childhood programs without taking away local control.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a long-time special education advocate, said that programs such as Part H of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act should be replicated for all children. Part H provides money for states to set up early-intervention programs for infants and toddlers who show signs of developmental delay.

Sen. Herb Kohl, D-Wis., announced last week that he will offer a budget amendment that would create grants totaling nearly $1 billion to pay for innovative early-childhood-education programs. Mr. Kohl also recently introduced legislation that would provide tax incentives to businesses that provide high-quality child care for their employees.

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