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

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.”

The results of the Chicago study that showed long-term positive effects for children who attended preschool do not impress Hess.

“If you cherry-pick really good preschools, like these boutique schools in the Chicago study, you can certainly find programs that seem to be very effective, and that have all kinds of benefits downstream," Hess said. "The problem is that people have been trying to imitate those programs for 10 or 20 years with little success."

Hess is skeptical that a new set of federal rules will improve the situation. He sees expansion of pre-K programs as a federal overreach into areas better handled by state governors.

“Governors are in charge of services, and they have leverage to move the system,” he said. “It’s nice that the president wants to help, but a part of life is understanding what his role is, and what it is not.”

Hess would like to see the federal government collect and report data about the academic and social benefits of various preschool programs. And he would like the federal government to provide grants for states that want to expand such programs — an idea that lines up with the president’s ideas to some degree, he noted.

“I would like to see grants to partner with programs that go after these issues in research-driven, creative and promising ways, and see those efforts researched and evaluated,” Hess said, “so we can learn about not just providing boutique early education for children, but for scaling it up.”

At a speech given last week, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the push to expand preschools is not "a new federal entitlement program." It's a plan to give states financial incentive to create or expand high-quality, state-run preschools administered in cooperation with local providers.

Doing pre-K right

The current Head Start program is administered by the Department of Health and Human Services, not the Department of Education, which could be one reason a real conversation about education before the age of 5 has been lacking, said Anne Hyslop, an education policy analyst for New America Foundation, a think tank whose education positions are described by Hyslop as “centrist, or a little to the left.”

“You see a child enter the K-12 system at age 5. A lot has happened before that, and the Department of Education should think about that in designing policy,” Hyslop said.

The problem of “Head Start fadeout” could relate to the fact that kindergarten is not required for all children, and many low-income children lack access to full-day kindergarten, which has been proved to help them dramatically, Hyslop said.

Low-income children typically attend low-performing schools in poor neighborhoods after they leave Head Start, where their previous gains might be lost. Furthermore, because the testing requirements of No Child Left Behind don’t kick in until third grade, K-2 education gets little emphasis in the system, and is “a wasteland” in some areas, she said.

Hyslop agrees with the need for quality pre-K instructors, but has concerns. Teacher preparation programs in the U.S. put little emphasis on pre-K education, she said. Programs that certify teachers for pre-K to grade six focus on preparing teachers to teach upper grades. High-quality pre-K instruction should emphasize creative play, interactive play between children, and between children and adults, learning to share and solve problems, she said.

“Figuring out how to get more individuals trained and qualified is one of our biggest questions,” Hyslop said. “We’re looking for more details there.”

The programs Obama is proposing will be expensive, Hyslop said. No one knows exactly what they will cost, though more details should come out when the president’s 2014 budget is unveiled sometime during the next few weeks. Some states have already started early education programs, though, spurred by research that shows strong benefits to individuals and society. Hyslop sees possibilities for blending the state funding that supports those programs with federal funding, as the new proposal suggests.

“Given the political realities, I don’t think there is support in Congress to put a whole bunch of new money toward this, but it’s worth building political will and awareness. It’s worth having the conversation,” Hyslop said.

Educational necessities

There is “a lot to like” in the president’s proposals, including the targeting toward needy children and focus on quality, said Michael J. Petrilli, a leading educational analyst, and executive vice president of Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a centrist/conservative think tank.

Petrilli questions whether the federal government has the tools to make the programs turn out right, however. Current problems with the Head Start program give him reason to doubt.

“There’s a strong case to be made that before we create a whole other approach to pre-K, we should fix the one we’ve got,” Petrilli said.

As much as everyone might wish to see children taught at home in their early years, research is clear that low-income kids need high-quality instruction in a preschool if they are to do well in public school going forward, Petrilli said.

“If they are living in a home where parents are not well-educated and are speaking a different language, the kids won’t get what they need in terms of strong vocabulary, and they end up starting school far behind,” he said.

Privileged kids might not need preschool at all, but with welfare reforms sending poor parents into the workplace, targeting preschools for children who don’t have the option of learning from stay-at-home mothers is necessary, he said.

Petrilli said funding the new proposals is not likely to happen at the scale the president is proposing, but if he makes this a huge priority, and allows some of the other social and domestic spending to be cut, maybe it could happen.

“Funding this will require some sort of grand bargain,” Petrilli said. “Those grand bargains are hard to come by lately.”