NYT : Obama’s $10 Billion Promise Stirs Hope in Early Education (ECE)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

…..The $10 billion Mr. Obama has pledged for early childhood education would amount to the largest new federal initiative for young children since Head Start began in 1965.  Now, Head Start is a $7 billion federal program serving about 900,000 preschoolers…..Now that new initiatives seem likely, experts are debating how best to improve America’s early childhood system, which they call fantastically fragmented, unconscionably underfinanced and bureaucratically bewildering.  Some hesitate to use the word “system” at all.  “It’s a patchwork quilt, a tossed salad, a nonsystem,” said Libby Doggett, executive director of Pre-K Now, a group that presses for universal, publicly financed prekindergarten.  There are federal and state, public and private, for-profit and nonprofit programs.  Some unfold in public school classrooms, others in storefront day care centers, churches or Y.M.C.A.’s, and still others in tiny centers run out of private homes…..In his presidential campaign platform, Mr. Obama pledged to establish a Presidential Early Learning Council to coordinate federal, state and local policies; to quadruple financing for Early Head Start; to provide federal challenge grants for states to use for early care and education programs; and to expand home visiting programs for low-income mothers.  The platform emphasizes improving quality, not just reaching more children.

One program that embodies many of these features is Educare, a national consortium of early childhood centers financed by taxes and several family foundations.  The first Educare Center, built in 2000 on the South Side of Chicago, offers all-day care and education to about 150 children from 6 weeks to 5 years.  Marquia Fields, who works at a Target store, leaves her 2-year-old son, Winter, and his infant sister, Summer, at the Chicago Educare Center from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. each workday.  On a typical morning, Winter scoots down the hall to his classroom, where he joins seven other children and three teachers, since a high teacher-child ratio is a requisite for quality toddler care.  After breakfast, the children sit on a rug while teachers read a story, then practice recognizing the letters of their name.  At midmorning, Winter romps in a gymnasium, and after lunch, he naps before arts and crafts.  “It’s learning through play,” Ms. Fields said.  “They learn routines.  They learn boundaries.  They learn to share, to express emotions instead of lashing out.”  Educare costs about $18,000 a child, roughly the annual tuition of an elite Manhattan nursery school.  By contrast, spending per child in state prekindergarten programs ranges from $10,494 in New Jersey to $2,335 in Florida.  Whether the top figures sound outrageous or like sound investments depends on how much one believes the research that shows large paybacks for the careful nurturing of poor children.  One much-cited study is of a preschool program that offered high-quality services to a few dozen black children in Ypsilanti, Mich., in the early 1960s at a two-year cost per child of about $15,000.  The study found that the investment, 40 years later, had rendered economic returns to society of some $244,000 per child, much of that in savings from reduced criminal activity.  Critics have challenged the findings, in part because of the small number of children involved.  Mr. Obama’s platform accepts the broad logic of the Ypsilanti study.  “For every one dollar invested in high-quality, comprehensive programs supporting children and families from birth,” the platform says, “there is a $7-$10 return to society in decreased need for special education services, higher graduation and employment rates, less crime, less use of the public welfare system and better health.”

Reference : http://www.nytimes.com/2008/12/17/us/politics/17early.html

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