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California Initiative Renews Preschool Debate

Iris Gonzalez, 4, and teacher Cheryl Smith review the days of the week during a pre-kindergarten class at Cool Spring Elementary in Adelphi. Californians are set to vote next week on whether the state should require public preschools for 4-year-olds.
Iris Gonzalez, 4, and teacher Cheryl Smith review the days of the week during a pre-kindergarten class at Cool Spring Elementary in Adelphi. Californians are set to vote next week on whether the state should require public preschools for 4-year-olds. (Photos By James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)

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By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 30, 2006

From coast to coast, states are pushing to get more 4-year-olds into classrooms like Cheryl Smith's thriving pre-kindergarten group at Cool Spring Elementary School in Adelphi.

Many youngsters arrive in Room 10 speaking English as a second language and Spanish as their first. Nearly all come from homes where paying for preschool is impossible. But by springtime, after passing or nearing their fifth birthday, children in this state-funded program have formed valuable relationships with peers and Smith, gained a familiarity with letters and numbers, and developed a thirst for learning that should propel them in school for years to come.

"It's almost time for kindergarten. We are ready now!" Smith's children sang one morning last week, swaying from side to side. "We have learned so much this year, it's time to take a bow!"

A few states have made public pre-kindergarten open to all; others are debating the expansion. Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) proposed universal access to pre-kindergarten last year during his campaign. But debate over a universal pre-kindergarten proposal on the ballot June 6 in California shows that widespread disagreement continues over whether the education of all 4-year-olds should be a public obligation.

Proposition 82, pushed by actor-director Rob Reiner, would require California to offer three hours of preschool a day to all 4-year-olds, with funding obtained from a tax increase of 1.7 percent on individual income of more than $400,000 and on joint-filer income greater than $800,000.

Advocates say every dollar spent on public preschool will save $2.62 by lowering remedial education costs, reducing crime rates, and providing other long-range social and economic benefits.

Opponents reject the savings estimate as exaggerated and question whether the proposal can achieve lofty goals that may be contradictory -- closing achievement gaps and raising performance of all students. Some critics say helping students who have advantages will only reinforce those advantages, leaving the disadvantaged perpetually behind.

Polls show that the initiative's prospects are uncertain. Many newspapers have lined up against it.

"Universal preschool, like world peace or thoughtful television, is a worthy goal," the Los Angeles Times wrote in an editorial opposing the initiative. The newspaper added: "Studies make clear that preschool can be a boon to disadvantaged kids. But they don't tell us whether preschool helps more than, say, full-day kindergarten, or smaller class sizes, or family literacy classes."

Many education analysts are tracking the California debate over whether pre-kindergarten should be universal or targeted to disadvantaged kids.

"From Ted Kennedy to George Bush, we have policymakers pushing to close achievement gaps," said Bruce Fuller, an education and public policy professor at the University of California at Berkeley. He was referring to the Democratic senator from Massachusetts and the president, who teamed up on the No Child Left Behind law. "The way you close gaps is to target public assistance on those children and families at the low end of the income spectrum."

But W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, said many children who fail at school or drop out come from the middle class -- strong reason, he said, for the nation to move toward universal pre-kindergarten.


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