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Thursday, May 12, 2005 | Lately we are hearing from all corners of the state about the importance of a good preschool for all children. Why now, when some of us child development people have been beating this drum for 50 years?

It is all a matter of timing. By now, the numbers of serious studies from all over the country have come together in a way that just can’t be ignored any longer. The research is just too overwhelming. The most interesting of this wealth of studies is one from Michigan by the High/Scope Education Research Foundation that began tracking economically disadvantaged children living near Detroit four decades ago. The subjects are now in their 40s, so we can see the long-term picture.

Two groups of children have been compared all this time: those who attended a quality preschool and those who attended no preschool. The children, ages 3 to 4, were African- American, born in poverty, from the same neighborhood and at high risk of failing in school. The children were randomly divided into two groups: one group that received a high-quality preschool program and one that received no preschool.

The results, up to now, are well beyond what most of us would have imagined. For example, those who did not attend preschool were twice as likely to be arrested for violent crime, four times more likely to be arrested for drug felonies and seven times more likely to be arrested for possessing dangerous drugs.

Those who did not attend preschool were more likely to be held back in school, more

The Michigan study suggested that, given the results, a quality preschool program would save the state more than $17 for every $1 invested, including $11 in crime savings alone.

With the knowledge gained from studies such as this one, the David and Lucile Packard Foundation funded a study by the Rand Corp. called “The Economics of Investing in Universal Preschool Education in California.” The results of this study were recently released and reported in the media across the state.

The Rand study was more conservative than the Michigan study but still found that voluntary universal preschool for 4 year olds in California would bring about $2.62 in benefits for every $1 spent.

In many European countries, according to a Public Broadcasting Service documentary released several years ago, high-quality preschool, taught by teachers with masters’ degrees in early childhood education, is free and readily available, and the programs are comparable to U.S. preschools that charge $15,000 a year.

“If we’re going to say we’re creating an equal-opportunity society for everyone … then it has to be equal from the beginning,” said one U.S. parent in the documentary.

Universal preschool in San Diego County

Planning Council members had knowledge of universal preschool programs implemented and planned in a number of other states, in communities in California such as Los Angeles, San Mateo and Merced, and in a number of school districts across the state including San Diego Unified School District.

The council also built upon the work done at the state level in the 1990s under the leadership of then State Superintendent of Public Instruction, Delaine Eastin, as well as the work done more recently by the Preschool California group.

The Master Plan for San Diego County envisions that within five years, PFA will provide universal access to quality education experiences for all 3- and 4-year-old children, regardless of income, with sufficient and stable funding on a per-child basis.

To plan carefully, nine task forces have been created to develop recommendations for the Master Plan.

The topics being addressed through the various task forces include standards for

At San Diego Unified, an estimated 3,400 kindergartners begin school each year at the district’s 30 lowest-performing elementary schools. According to SDUSD, funding for preschool is only available for 1,800 of these children, leaving 1,600 without access to district preschool programs.

SDUSD began a fundraising campaign called Smart Start, to raise $4.6 million to fund preschool for 1,600 children for two years. Once the money is raised, preschool programs at schools with the greatest need will be funded first.

Students who participate in the district’s preschool programs do so free of charge or on a sliding scale based on family income, and these children are less likely to start kindergarten developmentally behind, according to the district. The long-term goal is to serve all children, but initially SDUSD is targeting its most economically disadvantaged children.

A setback, but still hopeful

Earlier this month, the First Five Commission scaled back Preschool For All’s request for $80 million to fund programs in five San Diego County school districts, down to $30 million and two districts, yet to be determined.

Despite this setback, I am still confident that universal preschool can soon become a reality. We have known for many years that all children benefit from a quality preschool, not just low-income children. We also know that less than 50 percent of children attend preschool today in California.

At one time it was felt that it was too expensive to invest in a voluntary universal system, even for only four-year-olds. Now we know that it is too expensive not to invest in this – and the sooner the better if we want an educated, stable workforce to improve our economy.

As Lewis Platt, chairman of The Boeing Company and the former CEO of Hewlett Packard, said, “Funding the earliest years of education turns out to be one of the smartest investments we can make in our society and in our communities.”

Sue Braun is a task force leader for Preschool For All, San Diego County. She served as a member of San Diego Unified School District’s Board of Education for three terms, from 1990 to 2002, and holds a bachelor’s degree in child development from Cornell University and a master’s degree in social work from Columbia University.

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