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Is federal funding of pre-K a workable idea?

Published: Sunday, March 24 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

German Duenas-Padilla and Kylee Stauffer work on water color paintings in a preschool class.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

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Yes: Universal preschool will help millions achieve lives they desire

By Cary A. Buzzelli

Mcclatchy-tribune news service

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — President Barack Obama's call for universal pre-kindergarten is both great news and a great opportunity.

It is great news because if passed it will provide many more children with high quality early education. It is a great opportunity, if passed, for early childhood professionals to meet the challenge of providing many more children with high quality early education.

Providing universal pre-K means making an economic investment, educational investment and moral investment in our children and society. Other countries have already made such investments. We should wait no longer.

Since the 1980s, studies have shown the economic returns on early childhood education.

The early studies were conducted on a small group of well-designed programs: Perry Preschool Project, the Abecedarian Project and the Chicago Child-Parent Program. The findings of long-term benefits were welcome news to the early childhood community and policy makers.

More recent studies continue to show long-term benefits for participants now well into their 40s. These studies are getting attention perhaps because the public is now more receptive or perhaps because many were conducted by James Heckman, a Nobel laureate in economics from the University of Chicago.

Early education programs work. They are an investment in a long-term economic return that benefits the participants, their families and our economy. An economic investment is an important part of the argument for universal pre-K, yet it is only part of the story — an important part, but only part.

Universal pre-K provides a sound beginning to education as the cornerstone for our democratic society. Focusing primarily on the economic returns of early education diminishes the full value of such programs.

While early education can prepare a better workforce which can lead to a stronger economy, this does not necessarily guarantee a stronger citizenry which can guarantee a stronger democracy. Workforce preparation can prepare better skilled workers but it is not designed to prepare better citizens.

I became an early childhood educator nearly 30 years ago. No one in the field then, and for that matter, few in the field now, considered themselves in workforce preparation.

Our goal, then and now, was to create educational programs and experiences that nurtured children's minds, hearts, bodies and souls — in short, their well-being. Quality early education programs do this and more.

The benefits of quality programs for young children include but go well beyond the narrower vision of economic returns.

Yes, everyone needs the knowledge and skills to enter the workforce, but our democracy needs more. Through quality programs that focus on young children's intellectual, social, moral, affective and physical development, they gain the knowledge, skills and abilities for becoming engaged citizens.

Aside from the fact that many other advanced countries provide universal pre-K and the U.S. does not, there are the moral investments and the moral arguments: Providing universal pre-K is the right and just thing to do. This seems pretty simple and straight forward.

To deny early education to the young children who are most in need of such programs and who will benefit the most from them is to deny them the opportunity to flourish.

To paraphrase John Dewey, the famous "philosopher of education": What every parent wants for his child is what we should want for all our children

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