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Published in The Desert Sun, Mar. 24, 2013
Give kids an early edge Despite the critics of Head Start, universal preschool is a laudable goal

Our children deserve every chance to get a head start on their education. That premise inspired President Barack Obama to push for universal preschool in his State of the Union address in February.

“Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road,” Obama said. But less than a third of 4-year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program, he added.

“Most middle-class parents can’t afford a few hundred bucks a week for a private preschool,” he said. “And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives.”

Studies support preschools

Between the ages of 3 and 5, children can learn languages easier. Early learning experience helps stabilize the architecture of the brain as it is growing, according to a study by the Harvard-based Center on the Developing Child.

“From early infancy, they naturally reach out for interaction through such behaviors as babbling, making facial expressions and uttering words, and they develop best when caring adults respond in warm, individualized and stimulating ways,” the study says. “In contrast, when the environment is impoverished, neglectful or abusive, the result can be a lifetime of increased risk for impairment in learning, behavior and health.”

Preschool can be especially helpful for English language learners. However, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research, only 25 percent of 3-year-old Latinos have access to public or private preschools, compared to 43 percent of non-Latino 3-year-olds. Easier access to preschool could make a big difference in the Coachella Valley.

Questions about Head Start

Obama’s preschool push immediately flushed out critics, who pointed to studies that Head Start — the national preschool program for poor children — does not create long-term advantages. Head Start was launched as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty in the 1960s. More than 30 million children have gone through the program.

Despite a 2011 Department of Health and Human Services study, the latest one to question the effectiveness of Head Start, decades of data support the benefits. Perhaps the most exhaustive study is at Perry Preschool in Ypsilanti, Mich., where graduates have been tracked for 40 years. That study concludes that graduates of its two year program — compared to a control group with similar characteristics — are less likely to go on welfare, go to jail or become teen mothers.

As Rachel Gubman, a consultant and curriculum coach with the McCarthy Child Development & Training Center at College of the Desert, cites in her column, the study also finds that every dollar invested in a quality preschool saves $7 in social impacts later in life.

“A lasting and invaluable aspect of PreK education is language acquisition and vocabulary augmentation,” said Chauncey Veatch, a member of The Desert Sun editorial board and former national teacher of the year. “A model in early childhood development can be found at the College of Desert’s McCarthy Center where pre-literacy, literacy, nature, physical and family activities are seamlessly incorporated.”

Political support
California has long supported preschool programs, but not wholeheartedly. In 1998, barely more than 50 percent of voters backed Proposition 10, which added a 50-cent tax to a pack of cigarettes to help pay for early childhood education. In 2006, about 60 percent of voters rejected Proposition 82, which would have raised taxes on wealthy Californians to create free, voluntary half day preschool program for 4-year-olds. Both efforts were promoted by filmmaker Rob Reiner.
Dickerson, children ECE.jpg

Left:  Karen Dickerson, a College of the Desert student, works with youngsters at the McCarthy Family Child Development and Training Center at COD. COURTESY PHOTO
In 2009, two-thirds of voters rejected Proposition 1D, which would have diverted Proposition 10 money to help balance the California budget. Proposition 10 supports First 5 Riverside, which funds preschools here and in the rest of the county.

With both houses of the California Legislature dominated by Democrats, it’s likely that early childhood education could get broader support this year. State Sen. Carol Liu, a Democrat from Glendale, has proposed the Early Learning and Educational Support Act, which would amend existing law to declare that all children should have access to high-quality early learning.

We’ll wait for the hearings to see the price tag and other details before deciding whether to support Senate Bill 192, but the direction is a good one. The Desert Sun has little doubt that preschool helps children succeed in school and in life.

“Because brain architecture and skills are built continuously over time, policies that promote healthy development throughout the early years create a foundation for later school achievement, economic productivity, responsible citizenship and successful parenting.”


Study by the Center on the Developing Child, Harvard University