An All-Expense-Paid Preschool Education GEORGIA EXPERIMENT

Article excerpt

Goergia is in the midst of a massive education experiment to help reduce its high- school dropout rate, teen pregnancy, and crime. Its target audience: four year olds.

This year, the state will offer free preschool to more than half its 100,000 four year olds. The idea is that preparing children for education early will help reduce social problems, enhance economic development, and boost the state's own academic standing, which lags behind the rest of the nation.

Begun in 1993 targeting "at-risk" children, the program is being dramatically expanded. A study due out next month shows that participating children are testing higher academically than those who skipped preschool. The program is attracting national attention and, if it continues to show good results, could become a model for other states.

"The movement toward preschool education is terribly important," says George Autry, president of MDC Inc., a research firm in Chapel Hill, N.C. "We in the South have been economic prisoners of a weak education ethic."

Although many states across the country are focusing more on early childhood education, the South has taken the lead. Half of the 600,000 children enrolled in public preschool programs are in 15 Southern states, according to the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta.

In addition, in the South since 1990, the number of children in Head Start (the federally funded program for at-risk preschoolers) has increased by 65 percent; enrollment in state-funded preschool programs has more than doubled over the same period.

Behind the move is a realization that the region - whose student achievement has always fallen behind national standards - must make improving education a priority if it hopes to compete in the global workplace.

Across the South, states such as Texas and South Carolina are putting increased emphasis on early childhood education by starting or expanding their own state-funded programs. Most of these programs, however, target only at-risk children who live in poverty or in single-family homes.

But Georgia has gone out on an educational limb and is the only state offering free preschool to four year olds from all backgrounds. Democratic Gov. Zell Miller started the program three years ago, serving 9,000 at-risk four year olds. …