President Obama's State of the Union speech touches off renewed debate about pre-K programs

Published: Tuesday, March 12 2013 10:55 p.m. MDT

Many studies show that children who get started right do better throughout their school years.

Associated Press

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Last fall, teacher Amanda Jones faced 23 kindergartners who displayed eagerness, excitement and some fear. At the age of 5, she noticed, some students were already years ahead of others in their academic and social development.

"On the first day of school, you can tell that there is a huge academic gap," Jones said of her class at Pioneer Elementary School in Preston, Idaho. "We've got kids that can actually read, and some that know maybe two letters of the alphabet. We're expected to get every one of those kids on the same level."

Some students had no idea how to sit still, listen quietly, or raise a hand before speaking. Some didn't know how to treat other children respectfully — they hit others, and slowed the pace of instruction.

Kids who start kindergarten lacking a strong foundation for academic achievement rarely catch up to their peers, and research shows that society pays a high cost later. Strong correlation between poverty and low school achievement has prompted discussions across the nation about giving disadvantaged children an academic boost before they enter kindergarten. (Jones said that poverty and lack of English language skills play into lack of school readiness among her students, but some more affluent students show similar problems.)

Even before President Barack Obama called for federal-state partnerships to create high-quality preschools for 4-year-olds during his recent State of the Union address, several U.S. states have created their own preschools programs, and other states — including Hawaii and Mississippi — are looking at launching or expanding early education.

The proposals the president made during his speech last month touched off renewed debate about whether such programs are needed, if they work and how they should be implemented.

Despite contention over the proposals, areas of possible bipartisan agreement exist. The area of greatest controversy is the role of the federal government in early education. The sticking point, as usual, is money.

The background

Four decades of empirical evidence shows it is possible to improve a wide range of outcomes for vulnerable children well into adult years, and generate benefits to society far in excess of program costs, according to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child. However, the Harvard researchers note that success is dependent on the quality of the program used.

An oft-cited Chicago study involved 1,500 inner-city children who attended high-quality preschool, and were followed until the age of 28. The study showed the preschool participants had higher education attainment and income, and were less likely to be incarcerated or involved in substance abuse than peers who did not attend preschool.

However, a 2011 study by the federal government of its own Head Start pre-K program for low-income kids showed strong initial gains, but those faded out by about third grade, at which time students served by Head Start tested at about the same level as their low-income peers who did not attend.

The president wants to improve quality and expand access to preschool for 4-year-olds from families at or below 200 percent of the poverty level. This proposed program, to be funded through federal-state partnerships and administered by local school districts, appears to be quite different from the current federal Head Start program, and includes paying qualified pre-K teachers at a rate similar to teachers in the K-12 system.

Government's role

It’s generally accepted that high-quality early education is good for kids, and especially important for disadvantaged kids, said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. “But, the feds have been trying to help on this front for 40 years with Head Start, with dismal results.”

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