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The Lent Project: Day 4

Have a great weekend, everybody!

I did want to offer two interesting articles on the President's plan for universal preschool though...

There's this one from USA Today (McNews, as I call it) on Oklahoma's free, full day universal preschool program which is one of the best in the nation. I know a few other states are well-known...Georgia, I believe, was mentioned in the Obama SOTU speech.

There's also this one from the New York Times on expanding high-quality preschool in general.

I have much, much, much, much more to say about this topic later on. But I'll start by saying that A) I don't think free universal preschool is the magic bullet for fixing our educational system but B) it's the best start we could possibly begin with. Which is sort of a strange duality there.

One of the complaints about K-12 funding is that we're already throwing good money at the problem and test scores aren't going up. This, of course, assumes we're throwing enough money at the problem and that test scores are the way to measure. (See my post on what's wrong with testing. It's still in this month's "hot" post list on the sidebar.) We spend more every year on keeping individuals in prison in this nation than we do on education. There's one measure that needs to improve. The more we spend on education the less we'll spend on prison. But that's beside the point.

Preschool is important. No strike that, preschool is not important. I hope that's what we DON'T get caught up on in this coming debate. Early literacy, early exposure to academic and social skills...those are important. Whether they are received at preschool, through some other program, or in the home doesn't matter.

There are a lot of people in the Early Childhood Education funding debate in my own town who are arguing that it isn't the job of the government to fund preschool age children, that they should be the care of the local elementary school district, and lastly that it should really be the parents who take care of this business.

Those of us a little smarter, of course, know that parents have little to do with child outcomes and that it is overall environment including neighborhood, teachers, it really does take a village. But even beyond that there are issues with parents working, paying for childcare, not having time to give the attention to their children that they wish they could. Or they just don't have the skill set.

Which brings me back to the first two of those criticisms. Yes, it is the job of the government to look after the very young just as it is the government's job to look after the very old. They are high-risk groups for a reason. So we can put that point to rest immediately. Now, I am a little more sympathetic to the idea that we need to expand our K-12 schooling to be better about intake for toddlers.

Forgive me if I go off on a rant here, but the IL system for birth to 3, handoff to the elementary school, then eventually Kindergarten enrollment is a big old piece of chaos. What I'd like to see is a network of not just preschool options, but improved development and screening options starting at age 2 with a linked roadmap to actually entering school. Ideally, children should be prepared for Kindergarten with a mix of playgroups, preschool, professionals who can offer area-specific improvement to children with speech or social or even attention problems. In short, universal preschool only helps if we also improve the entire Early Childhood system. Not through some structured set of hoops to jump through. I get the opposition to that. I don't want to feel pressured to throw my 3 year old in preschool when I feel I can do some things better as a father at home. But access to social networks would help many parents--even here in my fairly wealthy suburb it's completely up to the drive and motivation of the parents to be able to find like-minded families to interact with.

Many of the early critics of the Obama plan--aside from his promise to not increase the deficit to fund it--find themselves caught up in the money involved. Pointing to the lack of "improvement" in the Head Start numbers, for one. But that's a red herring. Dollars invested in children up front show greater payback than at any time in a person's life. And future success can be impacted more at this stage than any other point in either school or job training. In short, it's worth pouring money into Early Childhood programs not because we hope to see some scientifically relevant data after 3 years or test score improvements. Don't measure by that. What we need to be measuring with is the jobless rate, prison rate, college graduation rate, and other factors in 10, 20, 30 years following full funding of Early Childhood programs.

Which you'll never see. No matter how important to the nation's future that might be, American minds don't tend to think longterm investment...taxpayers see pouring money down a pit of waste. Instead, we'll latch onto free universal preschool. Which is really just the achievable, mediocre way to half-ass the education of our children. I admire the President for even bringing it up. But it's nothing close to comprehensive reform.

But that brings me back to why I stay home...if our society and nation can't do it right, I'm the last line of defense to making sure my kids love books, learn to say please and thank you, and build their vocabulary. But, crazy as it sounds, that's NOT my job. The easy answer is to say my kids then I should be the one doing those things. Blame the parents if it isn't getting done! As hard as I am on parents though, I'm letting them off the hook on this one. We have a cultural child-rearing problem...I often complain about how we pay lip service to family values...well, this is another one of those where we like to say we're all about families and being family friendly but we're not. Far from it. If we're not properly serving preschoolers in our nation, we're doing it all wrong and it's no wonder we're going to hell in a handbasket.

If you're against better funding for 3-4 year olds and giving them access to anything and everything they need to prepare them for school, I'm not sure we can be saved. Oh, sure, call me selfish for wanting to take YOUR tax money for the benefit of people barely potty trained. But they need it a lot more than you. We need to stop having this ridiculous debate in America about whether the government should get involved in important matters of life...and start debating how the government should get involved in important matters.

Stay tuned...there's plenty more on this topic. More to come!