Universal preschool, universal benefits

Most parents know intuitively what studies have proven: Children's first years are prime time for learning. Some states are recognizing this and making prekindergarten schooling a top priority. Indeed, "pre-K" should be available to every child because the benefits go far beyond a child's school years.

One far-reaching study, begun in the 1960s, followed a group of low- income children in Michigan from preschool through adulthood. The research, called the High/Scope Perry Preschool Study, showed children who had pre-K education were more likely to graduate from high school, less likely to go on welfare or spend time in jail, and had slightly higher incomes than those who didn't have such a learning advantage.

The benefits of pre-K for children in all income groups is what drives today's supporters. Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich, for instance, wants to include all 3- and 4-year-olds in his pre-K initiative. And this year, Florida will become the third state to offer pre-K to all 4-year-olds.

Such moves build on the success of Head Start, the federally funded, early-learning program begun in the 1960s for families living below the poverty line. In 2005, this program helped more than 900,000 kids get a leg up on language and math skills. A study released last fall of more than 14,000 kindergartners showed that middle-income kids who attend preschool also progress significantly in developing these skills.

Critics fear that the formidable cost of making preschool broadly available isn't worth it. But a key result of preschool is economic gain for all. Higher incomes for those who participated in pre-K, and funds not spent on welfare or prisons, mean there's more money in the economy.

A recent analysis of the Perry study estimates a $17 return for every dollar spent on preschool education. Clive Belfield of Queens College in New York found between a $1.50 and $12 return on every dollar states invest in pre-K. And a review of partial pre-K programs in Massachusetts, Ohio, and Wisconsin, by Mr. Belfield, found that the economic benefits of making these programs universally available outweigh the cost. Children who participated in pre-K were less likely to repeat a grade or be placed in special education classes. And teachers with students who had attended preschool were less likely to say that behavior problems hindered teaching.

States, however, still have to wrestle with how to pay the bill. Most states, including Florida, use general state revenues to fund pre-K. Some other states, such as Arkansas, creatively cobble their funding together from state, local, and federal monies, as well as from special taxes on products such as beer or cigarettes.

The fact that attendance at publicly funded preschools is voluntary and that participation in universal programs has never topped 65 percent should make the funding hurdle easier to clear. And states should let private, nonreligious schools compete for such government spending.

While it's encouraging to see more states interested in pre-K, they shouldn't rush into offering two years, as Illinois is considering. One year is enough to make the crucial progress in helping kids start school on the right foot, and bring gains for society at large.

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