Supporting the Class of 2006

IN a few weeks the nation's youngest students - members of the Class of 2005 - will enter kindergarten. For many of these children, the first day of school will mark the beginning of a satisfying and successful educational journey. For others - disadvantaged children who start school without basic skills - experts say it could be the first step on a path leading to frustration and failure.

Improving preschoolers' readiness for school has long been a goal of educators. Now the National Governors' Association has issued a bipartisan report to help states accomplish that task. The blueprint outlines three objectives: increasing the number and quality of programs for poor and disabled preschoolers; improving nutrition and health programs for preschoolers; and improving social services for parents so they can help their children prepare for school. The report also calls for making American stud ents the best internationally in math and science; boosting high school graduation rates; and making schools free of drugs and violence.

The governors attach no price tag to their recommendations, a move that may be somewhat disingenuous. They claim this leaves states free to initiate programs as funds permit. But at a time when almost all states face shrinking budgets for social programs, the challenge will be to find the billions of dollars needed to achieve these goals.

The value of early-childhood programs such as Head Start has been convincingly documented. One study tracked 123 needy and disabled preschoolers from infancy to age 19. Sixty-seven percent of those who received early-childhood education graduated from high school, compared with only 49 percent of those who did not. Participants in these programs were also nearly twice as likely to be employed in their late teens.

Improving school readiness will not solve all the problems of American education. But the sooner states consider at least some of the governors' recommendations, the greater the chance that future kindergarteners - the Class of 2006 and beyond - will become tomorrow's productive citizens. Each well-planned legislative baby step now will hasten the giant leap forward that American schools - and students - so desperately need.

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