The Preschool Promise: Going to Preschool Benefits Children Their Entire Lives. Can States Afford to Provide It to All Kids?

Article excerpt

If you walk into a good preschool classroom, you might see a teacher reading to a group of kids, children immersed in an art project, little ones playing on a computer or getting ready for a field trip to a nearby museum or public library.

Those children, mounting research shows, will do better in school and are more likely to attend college. As adults they will have better jobs and pay more taxes. They will even be better parents.

The good news is that more and more children go to preschool: in 2002, 66 percent of 4-year-olds attended. Some schools are government supported, others are private. Today, at least 40 states provide state funding for preschool programs, compared to only 10 in 1980.

Parents from all income ranges send their children to preschool, although better educated parents with higher incomes have the highest participation rate.

Preschools are designed to provide education and a safe caring environment. Some states fund programs that incorporate the needs of working parents, sometimes by coordinating their programs with Head Start and child care subsidy programs to ensure full-day services.

READY FOR SCHOOL

One of the striking findings in early education is the size of the achievement gap at the start of kindergarten between children who have gone to preschool and those who have not. That difference hardly ever goes away. It continues in reading and math achievement in the early grades and throughout school and into the job market. Steve Barnett from the National Institute for Early Education Research--an independent, nonpartisan organization that conducts research and follows state early education policy--says that kids living in poverty are 18 months behind the average kid when they start kindergarten. "This is an incredible amount of time for a school to catch up," Barnett says. But the achievement gap isn't just a poverty issue. "The gap continues up the income ladder," he says. Because of these findings and recent brain research showing that almost 90 percent of brain growth occurs in children by age S, more lawmakers, economists, business leaders and parents are supporting early education.

THE RIGHT PROGRAMS ARE KEY

What makes a good preschool program? Proper teacher qualifications and training, small class sizes and teacher-to-student ratios, stimulating curriculum and other services that support families. A good program can improve a child's achievement over the short and long term. Recent focus on quality has prompted states to consider enhancements. For example, 23 now require preschool teachers to have a bachelor's degree with additional certification and license.

Most states target their state-funded initiatives to children who are in low-income families or at risk of school failure. Some states are looking to expand their preschool programs in response to state litigation, the need to improve test scores due to No Child Left Behind, and the latest research showing early education improves children's school success. Some states have different goals in mind, such as funding and expanding early education programs to reach more working families.

PAYING FOR QUALITY PRESCHOOL

Arkansas has a state-funded preschool program that started in 1991 for low-income children. In recent years, $40 million in funding has allowed more children to attend. Representative LeRoy Dangeau carried a bill this session that resulted in an additional $20 million over the next two years for the continued expansion of the state's program.

Other preschool funding comes from a beer tax (since 2001) that raises about 18 cents on every six-pack, generating $8 million annually for early education. This April, the Legislature passed a bill to extend the beer tax until June 2007.

Dangeau hopes that by the summer of 2007 there will be a total of $100 million dedicated for voluntary preschool for all 3-and 4-year-olds. …