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Learning curve

Early education gains friends, but will it reach kids who most need it?

The Washington Post

Like a distant roll of thunder, you can hear it coming ' and now it is only a matter of time before the movement for universal preschool education reaches the U.S. Capitol.

Georgia has already instituted it, Florida has passed an amendment to the state constitution mandating it, New York offers it to the poorest quarter of its children, and Oklahoma offers it to half. In fact, some 42 states and the District of Columbia now offer some form of pre-kindergarten education, even if it is only to supplement Head Start, the federal program designed to bring early education to lower-income students. More will join them: first lady Laura Bush is interested in the issue, and so is the administration.

In a world in which star Wall Street analyst Jack Grubman reportedly was willing to upgrade a stock in order to get his children into an exclusive preschool in New York, this is hardly surprising. Many parents of 4-year-olds are convinced that their children are ready to engage in formal education, and will pay for it if they can afford to. Some 69 percent of 4-year-olds are now in some form of preschool or center-based child care. In effect, the age of formal schooling is being pushed backward.

At the same time, the best kind of preschool education is also being given ' perversely ' to the children who need it the least. To date, there isn't much evidence that upper-middle-class children of educated mothers benefit from preschool ' and when asked, the Harvard University admissions office had never heard of the preschool Jack Grubman wanted so badly.

There is, however, plenty of evidence that poor children of poorly educated mothers benefit enormously ' as long as the program is of high enough quality to make up for what they don't get at home. Head Start partly makes up the gap, but it doesn't cover the working poor ' the lowest rate of preschool attendance is among families with an annual income of &

36;25,000 to &

36;30,000 ' nor is it consistently high quality.

Other institutions called preschool or nursery school range from places where children aimlessly mill around the room to sophisticated programs inspired by the latest in neuroscientific research. The Grubman children, of course, will not go to a school that suffers from high turnover or poor organization. As a result, they may be one more leap ahead of their poorer counterparts even before they start school.

Though the current fiscal crisis has dashed the hopes of those who had wanted to reopen the national debate on this subject, there may be an interim role for the federal government in helping to rectify this gap. So far, the most successful programs are those, such as Georgia's, that upgrade the existing network of preschools, day-care centers and church basements by providing extra teacher training and subsidies, or those such as Hawaii's that offer subsidies ' another word for vouchers ' directly to parents, allowing them to choose which type of program best suits their child.

Although this sort of approach will expand the availability and affordability of preschool, it won't improve the quality unless the states promote high standards of teacher training and clear definitions of what constitutes a good curriculum. Here is where Washington can help: by beginning to discuss what those standards might be ' and how to pay for teachers to learn them ' in preparation for the day the universal preschool movement arrives at the city gates.