Preschools are popping at the seams

American parents have finally gotten the message: Early education can make a big difference in a child's future.

Everywhere, private preschools are popping up and their enrollments are burgeoning. Local school districts are experimenting with state-funded preschool and full-day kindergarten. Researchers have not yet figured out how many of these early- education programs are effective, but the growth in enrollments has proved phenomenal and moved beyond the wealthiest states and fastest-growing suburbs.

"In many communities around the country, kindergarten is no longer aimed at the entry level," says Dominic Gullo, professor of early childhood education at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. "And the only way Mom and Dad feel they can get their child prepared is through a pre-kindergarten program."

Consider one statistic: In 2000, nearly two-thirds of America's 3- and 4-year-olds attended some sort of preschool, according to recently released census figures, up from 5 percent in 1964. Attending preschool, in other words, is becoming a prerequisite for children in the United States.

"There's plenty of reports on the value of preparedness," says June Million, spokeswoman for the National Association of Elementary School Principals, based in Alexandria, Va. "There's a huge difference between those who attend preschool and those who haven't."

Enrollment is up, even in Alaska

The growth seems to be coming from everywhere. In fast-growing Nevada, for example, the number of children enrolled in preschool and kindergarten more than tripled during the 1990s. But more impressive was slow-growing Arkansas, where enrollments increased 2.5 times. Even Alaska, which lost 10 percent of its 3- to 5-year-olds during the decade, notched a near 50 percent enrollment increase.

To be sure, such growth rates are probably exaggerated because of problems with the 1990 census. The count almost certainly underrepresented the number of preschool enrollments because of the way the question was asked. Another challenge: The 1990 census lumped preschool and kindergarten numbers together. Nevertheless, it seems clear that the 1990s saw substantial growth in enrollments.

Most of that growth probably came from preschool, education experts say, because kindergarten had already become a de facto requirement in many communities by the beginning of the 1990s. The Education Commission of the States reports that nearly 98 percent of eligible children now attend kindergarten. And now that preschool participation is also becoming so broad-based, fears of have- and have-not education for young children may prove overblown, they add.

"We're actually preparing a system of more 'haves,' " says Professor Gullo. "There's such a wide variety of opportunities, it gives parents of all economic levels the opportunity" to send their children to preschool.

In fact, census numbers suggest that the most disadvantaged places made the most progress during the past decade. In 1990, for example, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina had among the smallest shares of its 3- to 5-year-olds enrolled in preschool or kindergarten (fewer than two in five). But they notched the biggest gains of the '90s and now stand above the national average in the percentage of students enrolled.

These state-to-state comparisons remain valid, census officials say, because even though the census figures exaggerate the growth rates, they exaggerate them equally. Take Georgia, now one of the only states moving toward "universal" – publicly funded – preschool. A laggard in 1990, by 2000 it had a greater share of 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool – 75 percent – than all the states except New Jersey and Massachusetts. Those two states posted only average growth for the decade, because of already high participation in 1990.

The nation's large cities tell a similar though less dramatic story. Despite large pockets of poverty, they made slightly more progress than their suburbs during the decade. Of the 10 largest cities, for example, eight saw faster growth in the share of 3- to 5-year-olds attending preschool and kindergarten than their metro areas did. New York jumped from 34 percent of its youngsters enrolled in 1990 to 75 percent in 2000 – four percentage points better than the increase across the entire New York metro region. Chicago achieved five percentage points better than its region. Dallas and Phoenix managed a tie.

For most of these cities, the faster growth simply meant they closed the city-suburb gap somewhat. But Los Angeles and San Diego actually inched ahead of their suburbs in 2000.

But are the programs good ones?

While these enrollment trends are encouraging, a nagging question mark hangs over the quality of instruction. "The quality is as varied as the children," says Gullo. While some programs have shown they can help at-risk 3-year-olds move into the mainstream, researchers are also "finding a lot of inappropriate expectations of children who are 5 years old."

For one thing, there are many kinds of preschool (sometimes known as nursery school or even daycare). "The terms don't necessarily mean what [parents] assume they mean," warns Alan Simpson, spokesman for the National Association for the Education of Young Children. A daycare structured with appropriate educational activities can outperform a poorly run preschool, he adds.

Mr. Simpson's association is trying to bring standards to the field. So far, it has accredited more than 8,100 early-childhood programs (up from only 1,000 in 1990). But that's far less than a tenth of the schools out there, the association estimates.

Then there are resource limitations – both for the parents and the schools. In most states, parents would pay less if they sent their 4-year-old to a public university than to nursery school or child care, Simpson says. Nevertheless, the government supports far more programs to help parents pay for college than for preschool.

The current programs are drastically underfunded, Simpson adds. Head Start currently serves only about three-fifths of the eligible children, because of lack of money. For the same reason, the child-care subsidy for low-income families serves only about one in seven of those eligible to receive it.

According to the Education Commission of the States, 43 states currently fund some kind of early-learning efforts to prepare children for kindergarten. But if these latest census findings are to be believed, demand is building for many more programs.

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