At the Edward C. Mazique Parent Child Center in Northwest Washington, babies crawl across the carpet and stare at themselves in mirrors, while toddlers sing or use child-friendly computers -- all part of an effort to give their growing brains the exercise that eventually helps lead to college diplomas and good jobs.
Cynthia Faust, director of the center's Early Head Start program for 158 children ages 6 weeks to 3 years, is at the forefront of a national movement to give every child, from birth, the sights and sounds and interactions that promote physical, emotional, social and intellectual growth.
But another national effort, just as well intentioned, seems to be getting in her way.
In the past few years, while child advocates have promoted the Zero to Three movement to aid early brain development, many state governments have been calling for politically popular universal preschool. In a perfect world, there would be enough money for both, but the early childhood advocates say they are beginning to worry that their babies and toddlers will lose out to 4-year-olds being enrolled in pre-kindergarten.
"States may start to focus on pre-K programs as the 'magic bullet' for assuring school success to the exclusion of birth-to-three programs," said Matthew E. Melmed, executive director of Zero to Three, a nonprofit organization based in Washington. This "denies the extremely active learning potential of infants and toddlers," he said.
In Florida, where voters approved a universal pre-kindergarten program last year, the 60,000 children in preschool are expected to swell to 217,140 eligible for the program in 2005. "Some child-care programs are eliminating their infant/toddler care to focus solely on pre-K," said Mimi Graham, director of the Center for Prevention and Early Intervention Policy at Florida State University in Tallahassee. "It's more lucrative and less hassle, but what will happen to the babies?"
Zero to Three advocates have enjoyed a decade of increasing parental interest in early childhood development and increased funding, with film director Rob Reiner leading the effort in California and the federal government putting more money into its Early Head Start program for the birth-to-3 age group. But the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which emphasizes improved reading, writing and math skills, has sparked an interest in getting more low-income children ready for kindergarten by paying for them to go to preschool.
"Many are viewing the future public school as beginning at [age] 3 or 4, particularly for children less likely to attain certain readiness or proficiency skill levels, and this effort would be funded with public support," said Robert C. Pianta, a University of Virginia professor studying the effects of preschool. "This means less public money for programs for zero-to-three, with the expectation that the private sector will bear the costs for caring for infants and toddlers."
To many educators who work with the youngest children, too much emphasis on pre-kindergarten is shortsighted. "Before you can get to the ABCs and the academic lessons, you need to find out where the child's family is in terms of health needs, substance abuse and other factors," said Faust, whose program in the Mazique center includes many children of young, unwed mothers.
Although some of the research is contradictory, Melmed cites a study showing that 27.3 percent of children in federally supported birth-to-three programs scored low in developmental functioning, compared with 32 percent in a control group that did not have the same services.
Children whose developmental problems have not been dealt with in the first three years of life are going to be that much more difficult to help when they take their promised spots in universal pre-kindergarten, experts say.
"You pay now, or you pay a lot more later," said Jay R. Shotel, chairman of the teacher preparation and special education department at George Washington University.
The Bush administration has called for continued support of both Early Head Start, the federal zero-to-three program, and Head Start, the much larger preschool program, though it is pushing to revamp Head Start's core mission to emphasize literacy. For fiscal 2004, Early Head Start will get $647 million and Head Start a little more than $6 billion, said Wade Horn, the Health and Human Services Department assistant secretary for children and families, who noted that the funding formulas are locked in by law.
Melmed, of the Zero to Three organization, noted that spending for infants and toddlers is a fraction of preschool spending, and said he fears that the growing demand for preschool may encourage care providers to overlook the needs of younger children.
"Infant and toddler child care is more expensive than child care for 3- to 5-year-olds because infant and toddler care requires more adults to provide care, with lower staff-child ratios," Melmed said. "Operating a child-care center depends on tuition from older children to subsidize more expensive infant care."
Also, he said, the rise of pre-kindergartens might lure better-trained staffers from programs serving the younger children. "If the public schools are operating the pre-K programs," he said, "the salaries of the teachers will be significantly higher than the salaries of teachers of infants and toddlers in child care. The most highly qualified infant and toddler providers will be lured by high salaries."
So, early childhood advocates are pleading for a continued commitment to raising spending on birth-to-three programs at the same rate, at least, as pre-kindergarten spending, and keeping the programs linked to maintain a continuous focus on all stages of early growth. Without that, "We'll be fighting over scraps instead of working together to ensure that adequate resources are devoted to all children," said pre-kindergarten advocate Amy Wilkins of the Trust for Early Education.
"Pre-K per se may not hurt birth-to-three programs, but isolating it from the support and from the early care and education culture that has nurtured it may do damage," said Samuel J. Meisels, president of the Chicago-based Erikson Institute, which prepares child development professionals for leadership roles. "We don't want to make an orphan out of our birth-to-three programs."