Washington — Last summer, when she was chairman of the Education Commission of the States, the pre-eminent forum for state and local education policy-makers, New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen focused its annual meeting in Philadelphia on the importance of preschool programs.
In an interview there and in her keynote talk, Shaheen stressed that research has now solidly established that "children who receive high-quality early education are less likely to drop out of school, less likely to repeat grades, less likely to need special education and less likely to get in trouble with the law."
Conversely, those who start school without that preparation are often left behind and rarely catch up. The lesson, she said, is obvious: Investment in those early years, before age 6, pays the greatest social and academic dividends of all education spending.
Thus, it was an unpleasant surprise to open last week's special issue of Education Week, devoted to early childhood education, and turn to the page on New Hampshire. There, one reads, "While other states debate whether to offer preschool to 4-year-olds or extend their kindergartens from a half day to a full day, New Hampshire policy-makers are still arguing whether to offer kindergarten at all." A foundation report ranked New Hampshire last among the 50 states with only 53 percent of the eligible youngsters being served by public kindergartens.
I cite this finding, not to embarrass Shaheen, who has battled for five years to introduce a statewide kindergarten program, but to make the point amply documented in Education Week's exhaustive report that nationally, the gap between rhetoric and reality in this area of education is enormous.
In Texas, whose former first lady, Laura Bush, was host to a White House conference on early education, 72 percent of the eligible 4-year-olds were in school. But Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Ratliff told Education Week, "I think we have far too many kids coming into first grade unprepared."
The state-by-state survey shows huge variations in both spending and standards for preschool programs. Money is not everything, but when California spends less than one-third as much per child as Oregon does on pre-kindergarten programs, you can guess which is more adequate. California allows a 33-1 pupil-teacher ratio in kindergarten, one of the highest in the country, and, unlike Oregon, provides no state bonus for high-quality child care programs.
The biggest national problem may be the gross inadequacy of pay for early childhood educators. The average annual salary in 1999, the latest year for which figures are available, was $15,430. As Education Week notes, that is "about as much as parking-lot attendants and dry cleaning workers make."
This is obviously no way to attract talent. All states require college degrees and teaching certificates for kindergarten teachers, but only 20 impose similar standards on pre-kindergarten programs. In most states, those running child care centers have no education requirements to meet.
Disturbing as this picture is, the situation may get worse before it gets better. The recession has caused serious problems in state budgets, and preschool programs have fewer advocates than elementary and secondary schools and higher education.
North Carolina has been a national model, thanks to the Smart Start program launched by former Gov. Jim Hunt. But in last year's legislative session, dominated by a prolonged budget impasse, Smart Start money was cut by almost 30 percent.
With great fanfare, Congress and President Bush have hailed the passage of the Leave No Child Behind Act as the start of a new era for public schools. Under its provisions, every child will be tested every year from third through eighth grade on mastery of English and mathematics. Schools with too many educational failures will get help in shaping up, but if they persistently are found inadequate, new staff will take over or the children will be moved.
That kind of accountability is long overdue. But to impose new requirements on those schools while shortchanging the process of preparing their students to learn is worse than self-defeating. It is a surefire method for frustrating parents, teachers and students, guaranteeing that this nation will not meet its education goals.
There are problems we do not know how to solve, but this is not one of them. The evidence that quality education beginning at age 3 or 4 will pay lifetime dividends is overwhelming. The only question is whether we will make the needed investment.
David Broder is a columnist Washington Post Writers Group.