Providing free preschool for every American child - the centerpiece of Vice President Al Gore's new education proposals - would be perhaps the most profound restructuring of the nation's public schools in decades.
Many education experts see such pre-kindergarten programs as a natural and beneficial step that would aid hard-pressed working-class parents. Others say its benefits aren't clear-cut - and that public schools have a hard time handling the classload they have now.
If nothing else, the proposal raises anew one of the most longstanding debates in US politics: how heavily the federal government should be involved in education, traditionally an area of local control.
"Any program must be at the parent's choice. Nobody is saying we want compulsory services from birth to age 5," says Sharon Lynn Kagan of the Bush Center in Childhood Development and Social Policy at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., a proponent of federally backed pre-K programs.
Mr. Gore unveiled details of his education program in an appearance at a Nashville school on December 16. His proposal would provide schools with financial incentives for improved teacher performance, as well as $50 billion for universally available pre-school for three and four-year olds.
At a total of $115 billion, Gore's plan would mark a major advance in Washington funding for public schools. Vice President Gore's opponent for the Democratic nomination, by contrast, has opted to propose major spending increases on expanding the nation's health-care system, while GOP front-runner George W. Bush wants to hand Americans a major tax cut.
Thus the politics of surplus may have replaced the politics of deficits, with voters getting a clear choice about how, or if, they want to divvy up the excess cash predicted to accumulate over the next decades in Washington's coffers.
To Gore, universal preschool is an idea whose time has come. Proponents note that it an educational experience that is becoming widespread in the US - an estimated 55 percent of US three- and four-year-olds are enrolled in such programs.
Yet today's patchwork system of pre-schools, with some public, some religious, some private, generally limits access to kids whose parents have the time and money to search for them. Some 79 percent of households with an income of $75,000 or more send their children to pre-school. By contrast, only 43 percent of those earning $10,000 or less do. A nationwide program, say proponents, would thus help the disadvantaged most.
"Affluent parents tend to provide this as a matter of course, and it has not been available to less-affluent children. What [Gore] is proposing is a step in the right direction to raising the achievement bar for children that have been shut out," says Dr. Frances Campbell, a child-development fellow at the Frank Porter Graham Center at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
Some states have started to move towards more widely-available programs.
Georgia has already approved statewide pre-K funded by money from the state lottery. New York has vowed to move in the same direction, with a plan to phase in as many new programs as possible over a five-year period.
"New York has been actively and very assertively saying, we can work toward universal pre-K for all children, says Eileen Wasow, associate dean of the Division of Continuing Education, Bank Street College of Education New York. "Children who attend pre-K programs have better attendance records, more creativity, better social, and problem-solving skills."
"The country has not yet recognized - as other Western developed nations have - the importance of committing to universal pre-K education," adds Ms. Wasow.
But others caution that it would be foolish to shovel additional responsibilities onto America's overtaxed public-school system.
"When the public schools are struggling as hard as they are now ... it's a ludicrous idea to expand them, when they can't even meet the minimum requirements that we have today," says Darcy Olsen, director of education and child policy at the libertarian Cato Institute in Washington.
She argues that additional programs such as universal preschool are designed to make up for the inadequacies of crumbling public schools. Fix them, Olsen argues, don't add extra burdens on both schools and increasingly stressed-out children.
"Kids are expected now to go to school year-round, start when they're 3, and go to tutoring sessions after school...."
And while children in France and Belgium have to start school at age 3, Ms. Olsen is concerned that some kids simply aren't ready for the classroom at that age.
Critics worry too that the federal government is overstepping its constitutional bounds. "People say education is too important to be left to parents," says Olsen. "Precisely because it's so important, that's why the government shouldn't have anything to do with it."
*Staff writers Marjorie Coeyman and Elizabeth Marlantes contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society