Copyright © 2002 News World Communications, Inc. Reprinted with permission of The Washington Times.
"Preschool is a lot more important than high school. If I had my way, I would do away with the last grade in high school and put it on the front end."
So says Sen. Zell Miller, Georgia Democrat, in an hour-long PBS show "The Promise of Preschool," produced this year by veteran journalist John Merrow.
The show profiled Georgia's bold "universal preschool" program, which is open to all 4-year-olds in the state regardless of income and is funded through lottery revenue.
Other powerful voices are now urging the United States to create government-funded preschool programs that are free to all children:
- Earlier this year, the prestigious Committee for Economic Development, which includes business and education leaders, endorsed the idea of universal preschool and called for an extra $35 billion in funding.
- Just three months ago, at the behest of filmmaker Rob Reiner, Los Angeles County officials decided to allocate $100 million in tobacco-tax money to create a universal preschool program for 3- and 4-year-olds.
- Last month, the nation's largest advocacy group for child care workers joined forces with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) to ensure the anticipated public preschools have the best possible work environment and jobs.
- This month, Florida voters passed a measure to make pre-kindergarten freely available to all 4-year-olds in the state by 2005. Funding has yet to be worked out.
With all these forces coalescing around the free-preschool message, should Americans expect a taxpayer-funded, European-style preschool in their neighborhoods anytime soon?
Probably not, but it's coming, proponents and opponents say.
"We know the investment we make in children pays off in the long term," said Marci Young, deputy director of the Center for the Child Care Workforce, which merged with the AFT's Education Foundation in October.
Already, she said, "there's been extraordinary attention" to government-funded early education, because "if we're going to be serious about getting children ready to start school, we have to think carefully about the kind of experiences they have access to before they get there."
Universal preschool is "a train that started back in the '80s, and we're just seeing it pick up steam," Heidi L. Brennan, public-policy analyst at Families and Home Network, which supports stay-at-home parents.
"Our goal is to remind policy-makers and legislators that parents are not asking for this. It's a lobby that's asking for this," said Mrs. Brennan, whose group urges more generous tax credits and per-child tax exemptions as the genuinely universal way to benefit all parents.
Although the new Republican-led Congress is expected to review the federally funded Head Start program, which serves low-income preschoolers, it's not expected to do much on universal preschool.
"If the Republicans aren't interested in it, then it's not going to go anywhere," a Democratic Senate aide said.
Other Senate aides say expanding existing preschools from half days to full days will be a priority. The cost per child - for the state - ranges from $2,448 to $3,796.
House Democratic leaders such as Rep. George Miller, California Democrat, plan to push for "a comprehensive early childhood program." This would get kids ready to learn and promote their development, as President Bush has called for, Mr. Miller says.
At the heart of the issue are this nation's 19.6 million children who are under age 5.
Professionals cared for about a third of these children in some organized setting, including 1.1 million children enrolled in actual preschools, the bureau said in a report issued in July that used 1997 data.
The other two-thirds of children were cared for by their parents or other relatives.
Although the universal preschool debate has been around for at least 20 years, the battle lines have remained stable. Advocates for government-funded preschool believe that professional, high-quality early childhood education is essential for future educational success.
Many of America's kindergartners aren't ready for school, they say, noting that, according to the National Center on Education Statistics, the first major study of kindergarteners showed that 34 percent of children weren't proficient in recognizing letters.
With preschool fees prohibitive for many families, advocates say publicly funded preschools - like France's "ecole maternelle" - would be an excellent way to engage all children.
"They [the French] put their money where their values are," child care advocate Joan Lombardi told Mr. Merrow's PBS show, which profiled a New York family that moved to France so they could enroll their son in that country's creative, high quality - and free - preschool.
The costs of universal preschool are expected to be sizable but worth it, proponents say, noting that a new study has found that every $1 invested in a high-quality, full-day, year-round preschool generates a $4 return for the children, their families and taxpayers.
The "economic and social returns on public investment in preschool are significant and long lasting," said researcher Leonard Masse, who studied the landmark 1970s Abecedarian Early Childhood Intervention preschool project in North Carolina.
He and his colleagues found that the Abecedarian preschoolers grew up to seek higher educations, performed well on intelligence tests and delayed having children, compared with peers who didn't have the classes. The study was released Nov. 20 by the National Institute for Early Education Research.
Even findings like this, however, aren't likely to change the views of traditional family groups and others who say public preschool is too socialistic and bureaucratic and gives the public education lobby too much control over children.
"They've already got these kids for 12 years, and they're not getting the job done. But rather than address the problems and reform the system, they seek to expand it" into preschool, says Darcy Olsen. She is a longtime critic of universal preschool who is now executive director of the Goldwater Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Phoenix.
There are not even compelling data that America needs a European-style preschool, said Miss Olsen. "Our preschoolers are the A students on the international curve ... our children are more prepared than children anywhere else in the world," she said. "It's only after they've been in the traditional school system for several years that they begin to fall behind."
What's really needed, Miss Olsen added, is education reform between the fourth and 12th grades.
Another unmentioned angle in the drive for universal preschool is its payoff for labor unions, said Myron Lieberman, chairman of the Education Policy Institute and an expert on labor issues.
"If the idea of [government-funded] preschool ever caught on," he said, "you're talking about a huge increase in union membership."