Illinois Leads New Push for Universal Preschool ; They Give Children a Boost in School and into Adulthood, Advocates Say. but Gains Can Disappear after a Year or Two

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By the time they start kindergarten, many children are already 18 months behind.

That - along with studies showing that money invested when kids are 3 or 4 years old helps them graduate or keeps them out of jail - is one reason states are starting to take a much harder look at funding education before they get to kindergarten.

Last month, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) proposed an initiative that would make the state the first in the US to offer universal preschool to 3-year-olds.

In June, Californians will vote on a ballot initiative to provide prekindergarten to all children. Legislators and governors are talking about universal preschool in Virginia, Arizona, New Jersey, and other states. And last year, at least 26 states increased spending on their preschool programs.

"If you look at pre-K as a national movement, it's continuing to move across the country, and we think California is indicative of that," says Don Owens, a spokesperson for Pre-K Now, an early childhood- education advocacy group.

But even as proponents tout the idea as the only safe educational investment, some critics question lavishing money on toddlers. They cite the "fadeout" effect some studies have shown, in which educational gains disappear after a year or two, and question the wisdom in offering universal pre-K, rather than targeting high- quality programs to children who need it most.

"I think [Illinois] is already doing a decent job with the really high-needs kids," says Collin Hitt, an associate with the Illinois Policy Institute, which advocates small government.

Mr. Hitt cites the Head Start studies that have shown limited gains for youngsters enrolled in the program, and studies from Georgia - one of three states, along with Oklahoma and Florida that currently has a universal pre-K program - that show any educational gains disappear within a year or two.

But some studies show significant long-term effects, not all academic. The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study spent more than 40 years tracking 123 African-Americans who went through a preschool program in Ypsilanti, Mich., comparing them with a control group. Those with preschool were more likely to graduate from high school and about half as likely to need special education. About four times as many owned their own home by age 27 and were earning at least $2,000 a month. They were less likely to be arrested, be on welfare, or have a child out of wedlock.

"Even though since they're way in the future, you discount them, those benefits outweigh the costs under pretty much any scenario you can think of," says Clive Belfield, an economics professor at Queens College at the City University of New York. …