Learning More, Earlier

  • Share
  • Read Later

Sidney Robinson drops off his son for pre-K at Georgia State Univ. in Atlanta

When Sherri Larsen casts her vote for President, she will be thinking of her first-grade son. A divorced mother of three on a pinched budget, Larsen could not afford preschool tuition. But thanks to Georgia's pioneering universal pre-K program, which guarantees each of the state's four-year-olds a year of school, she didn't pay a cent. Her son entered kindergarten fully versed in his ABCs and is now reading a year ahead of pace. Says Larsen: "I just can't believe this program isn't available in other states."

Asked early in the election which single program would distinguish him from any other candidate, Gore cited his $50 billion "universal preschool" proposal, which would extend the Georgia model to the nation. It's the single costliest — and boldest — piece of his education agenda. Gore would also pump an extra $10 billion over 10 years into Head Start, the existing federal preschool program for poor children, which would continue to provide them with both educational enrichment and social services like meals and health care.

Many industrial nations have long funded preschool for all — and with great results. The early returns on Georgia's five-year-old program are promising, with the first beneficiaries, now third-graders, outpacing their peers in math and reading. And Gore says his proposal would provide financial relief across the board, especially to middle-income families. But the program could be costly to taxpayers. Experts say Gore's "universal" measure could funnel money to some parents who don't need it. And to make the program viable, states must ante up matching funds. Though 42 states now bankroll some form of public preschool, the budgets are often minuscule. Georgia taps its state lottery, but it's unclear where other states would turn for extra dollars.

By contrast, Bush's proposals for early childhood are aimed at the kids who, studies show, benefit most from preschool: the poor. Citing mixed reviews of Head Start, he would shift the program's address from the Health and Human Services Department to the Education Department and emphasize educational pursuits like word recognition and counting over social services. The cost of this change? Zero. Bush saves his dollars for his $5 billion reading initiative, which does not kick in until kids reach kindergarten.

Bush's blueprint is the Margaret H. Cone Head Start Center in Dallas, where kindergartners' verbal scores rocketed 20% on standardized exams after the center adopted a language-centered curriculum. But this formula, slowly set in motion by a 1998 federal law, could be difficult to clone nationwide: average per pupil spending for Head Start is slightly more than $5,000, vs. more than $7,000 at the corporate-backed Cone Center. Even if Congress okays the move from HHS to the Education Department (President Jimmy Carter tried — and failed — to do the same), the change of responsibility will do nothing to ease Head Start's funding crisis. Space is at such a premium that currently only 54% of eligible poor students can enroll. "First we want to put the program in the right direction educationally," says Bush education adviser Sandy Kress. "Then we'll talk money."

— With reporting by Amy Bonesteel/Atlanta and Michelle McCalope/Dallas