Opinion

Preschool Plans Vital to Learning

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Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and leaders from 23 states, including Oklahoma, gathered recently in Orlando, Fla., for a two-day forum on high- quality preschool for America's 3- and 4-year- olds. National attention to this issue could not have come at a better time.

President Bush recently expressed his administration's support for high-quality preschool. Eight of the nine Democratic presidential candidates call for high-quality preschool and four of them call for universal preschool for all 4-year-olds. 

Society is starting to understand the link between early education and academic success. A growing body of research shows that poor and minority children who attend high-quality preschool are better prepared for kindergarten, achieve higher test scores and graduation rates and are more likely to enroll in college. 

The benefits of early childhood education go beyond the classroom, with studies linking high-quality education to lower crime rates and lower drug use. 

Nearly 40 years ago, most children were home until they started school. In the mid- 1960s, only 15 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds were in preschool or daycare programs. By 1970, that had increased to about 40 percent. In 2000, more than 70 percent of 4-year-olds were in preschool programs. 

Unfortunately, the quality of most programs is poor and for many working families high- quality preschool is too expensive. Nearly three-quarters of the out-of-home care and education centers in this country are not even considered good. Twelve percent may actually be harmful to a child's development. 

Parents across the income spectrum are struggling to provide their children with the best possible care and education in their early years. They're not getting the help they need from most preschool programs. 

Many working parents need to place their children in preschool. However, nearly the same percentage of families with one parent at home choose to. Parents are well aware of the social, emotional and cognitive benefits of good pre-K programs. 

Faced with the overwhelming evidence of academic and societal benefits of early childhood education, many states are taking the lead in promoting universal coverage, despite tough financial times. 

Despite the research consensus that high- quality early education is key to success in school and in life, we are still far from national agreement about educating our 3- and 4-year- olds. Although 42 states and the District of Columbia provide some form of early education, only 10 states account for 75 percent of the dollars spent. 

Achieving the goal of universal, voluntary pre-kindergarten will require action from federal and state governments, as well as other public and private sector partners. 

It's time to invest in our children's earliest years so that they arrive to kindergarten--and life--ready and able to succeed.