Philadelphia ECS, made up of governors, legislators and education officials from the 50 states, convened at a time when education issues crowd the national agenda. The state and local officials questioned Education Secretary Rod Paige about the congressional negotiations that are putting President Bush's education initiative into final form. They discussed efforts by budgeteers in their states to measure the productivity of college and university faculties. Testing, teacher preparation and a host of other issues vied for their attention.
But the main topic at this meeting was early childhood education -- and for a very good reason: More and more research is showing that brain development and acquisition of learning skills in the first five years largely determine later school achievement. And research demonstrates that high-quality preschool programs pay off, not just in better student performance but in preventing dropouts, delinquency and juvenile crime.
Few places represented at the ECS meeting can match the aggressive outreach and range of services Brattleboro offers. But more and more communities and states are recognizing the value of investing in the earliest years of children's lives.
A few days before the meeting, I interviewed University of Wisconsin professor Arthur Reynolds, the lead investigator of a federally financed, Head Start-like public school program called the Chicago Child-Parent Center (CPC). The study compared 989 poor children from blighted neighborhoods who participated in the program from age 4 onward to a comparable group of 550 children who went to an all-day kindergarten but not to the same kind of comprehensive preschool for 4-year-olds.
Originally enrolled between 1983 and 1986, they were followed by researchers as they grew up. The results of this largest-ever "longitudinal study" are dramatic. Compared with the control group, the CPC kids had a 29 percent higher high school completion rate, a 41 percent lower rate of special education placement and a 40 percent lower likelihood of being held back a grade. They also were 33 percent less likely to have been arrested and 42 percent less likely to have been arrested for a violent crime.
All this promises better futures for youths who have had a good preschool program. But it also pays big dividends for society. Reynolds and his associates calculated that the average cost of the CPC program of $6,730 per child paid back $47,759 in benefits, about equally divided between higher earning prospects for the youths and lower costs for the society in remedial education, crime victims' losses and jail time. Law enforcement officials at a news conference held by the advocacy group, "Fight Crime: Invest in Kids" said the whole CPC program, which has served about 100,000 kids, will spare Chicago 13,000 violent crimes by the time those youngsters are 18.
New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, who as chairman of ECS for the past year put preschool education at the top of its agenda, told me that with all the national emphasis on standards and testing, policy-makers are still catching up to the fact that "the research very clearly shows that what happens before kindergarten largely determines how kids do in school."
But the word is spreading fast -- across the political spectrum. Sandra Feldman, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, earlier this month called for universal, voluntary preschool education, with parents sharing the costs on an ability-to-pay basis.
The Bush budget proposed only a $125 million increase in Head Start funding, less than enough to pay for the cost-of-living adjustments for Head Start workers. But on Thursday and Friday (July 26 and 27) first lady Laura Bush is playing host to some 350 people at a forum at Georgetown University designed to "expand awareness of research and highlight proven early learning activities." Perhaps she will convince her husband to help create more Brattleboros.
-- David Broder is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.