Early Learning Power

EVER since Zoe Baird's ill-fated nomination for attorney general, child care has been dramatized as a perk related to economic status. A new study from the Harvard Graduate School of Education documents just how unlevel the playing field can be.

Titled ``The Unfair Search for Child Care,'' the report explores just which three-to-five-year-olds are among the 4 million attending 80,000 preschools - and even more to the point, just which tots are not. The poor get Head Start, at least in urban centers. The rich get just about anything they want in the way of preschool or day care, though the waiting lists may be long.

It is working-class parents above the subsidy level for Head Start and rural families in the South and Midwest that are left out, according to the study.

Some educators argue that preschool training has been overrated - that a diligent mother at home with some kind of formal program for her children can achieve comparable results. But in a two-parent working society, where are these mothers?

While maintaining that the nurturing of three-to-five-year-olds should remain a matter of choice, opponents ignore the evidence that parents who can afford a choice show an overwhelming preference for a preschool or day care structure. In response, corporations that can afford the benefit base their recruitment on promises of day care and flextime scheduling. Working Mother magazine has just published its annual list of ``The 100 Best Companies for Working Mothers.'' Every year, the list of self-promoting candidates gets longer. This year it reached 1,000.

Clearly child care, like health care, has become more than an option, more than just another perk.

The equal right of all children to a public education is one of the noblest principles of American democracy. Public education, in effect, has been extended downward to the years before kindergarten as the early learning capacities of children have been appreciated.

Whether through block grants or tax credits - as proposed by the Harvard study - or private-sector contributions, every effort ought to be made to implement education for all at this new, relatively inexpensive level. Considering the ``crisis of adult illiteracy'' that handicaps those now entering the work force, the earliest possible training of future generations in their ABCs should prove to be a bargain.

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