Free preschool will help Latinos and US

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We generally think of kindergarten as a time of possibilities and fresh starts. But kids don't begin their formal education on equal footing: When they arrive at the schoolhouse door, poor and minority students often lag behind their peers by as much as 18 months. The imperative of reducing this achievement gap has convinced state leaders to invest in toddlers' education. Over half of governors increased spending on pre-K last year. Three states – Oklahoma, Florida, and Georgia – offer free preschool to 4-year-olds, and policymakers in Arizona, Virginia, and Illinois are considering universal programs.

While California voters voted down a proposition that would have provided free preschool to 4-year-olds earlier this year, the state is set to invest hundreds of millions of dollars to provide early education to poor children, the group likely to profit most from high quality programs.

In order to deliver on the promise of pre-K, states will need to aggressively reach out to the fastest-growing part of our population: Latino children. Only 40 percent of Latino 3- to 5-year-olds attend preschool, compared with approximately 60 percent of both African-American and white children. Ironically, Latinos are particularly in need of early intervention: They often live in poverty, their parents generally have low levels of education, and in recently arrived immigrant families, children's exposure to English can be minimal.

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Our country's future is tied to the success of young Latinos. By 2025 Hispanics will account for almost a fifth of US residents. Whether these kids are able to land high-skill jobs as adults won't just affect their quality of life, but also whether our country can afford retirement programs for the aging (and predominately white) baby-boomer generation.

An important first step to reaching these kids is a no-brainer: We need to make more programs available. A study by Bruce Fuller at the University of California, Berkeley, last year found that the counties with the densest Latino populations in Los Angeles and Chicago were the least likely to have child-care centers. That trend probably holds true in many predominately Latino neighborhoods. Still, merely increasing supply won't be enough – policymakers need to work on the demand side of the equation, as well.

Publicity is an integral part of raising awareness about preschool in Latino communities. A March 2006 poll commissioned by the advocacy group PreK Now found that over half of Latinos felt that early education was out of their reach because they either weren't aware of existing programs or figured they couldn't afford them even if they did know where to look.

Outreach can combat that pessimism. In Arkansas, for example, business leaders from Tyson Foods and the power company Entergy teamed up with the state Department of Human Services to create Spanish-language radio ads and flyers to inform Latinos about the state's expanding preschool program. Approximately 7,000 children took advantage of the new opportunity – a sizable portion of whom were Latinos.

In addition to alerting parents to programs, Oklahoma's much lauded state-wide pre-K program has found that providing services through schools – versus community groups or religious institutions – can also boost Latino participation. Parents already have a level of comfort with elementary schools (they send their older children there, after all). Perhaps more important, schools are often equipped to accommodate parents' long workdays because they can tap federal money to provide all-day classes. Many Latinos work long hours in the service economy – making it impossible for them to take off at noon to pick up their toddlers.

Finally, states that are serious about serving diverse communities should refrain from asking for evidence of legal residency when they are enrolling families. The vast majority – more than 90 percent – of Hispanics under the age of six are US citizens. But oftentimes their parents are not, and when programs require information such as social security numbers during enrollment, it can dissuade parents from pursuing the educational opportunities their children need.

To give all kids a chance to be successful in school, we have to intervene early. Kindergarten is too late. But creating more early education programs isn't enough; states need to proactively reach out to Latinos. If they don't, expanding pre-K could ironically increase the disparities in educational achievement, as more whites and African-American kids enroll in these programs, and Latinos continue to be left out.

Alexandra Starr studied Latino participation in preschool as a University of Maryland journalism fellow in child and family policy in 2005.

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