Tuesday, September 19, 2006

The Promises of Preschool

To go or not to go – that is the question many parents of preschoolers ask.

It’s a decision that may be taken out of their hands if legislators continue down their path of good intentions.

Many states are in the process of deciding whether or not to fund public preschool. In the spirit of No Child Left Behind, Congress and the President are looking for opportunities to enact new preschool programs. From Universal Preschool to changing kindergarten entry cut off dates, getting children into school earlier than ever is at the top of the agenda.

Indiana hopes to send 6000 new kindergarteners with summer birthdays to school a year earlier.

But it’s not cheap. Early estimates put the preschool price tag at around $9.2 billion annually.

According to the Progressive Policy Institute, writer Sara Mead explains that successful preschool programs are more than glorified babysitting. The goal – to ensure that all children are ready for school, especially those from disadvantaged homes who might not otherwise be able to afford preschool.

The thinking is that we either pay now or pay later – either way it is going to cost.

Early childhood educators propose that a successful preschool experience will reduce grade retention, special education placements, teen pregnancy, welfare participation, and crime rates among participants later in their lives. Proponents for preschool in Massachusetts are telling taxpayers that the state would recoup $1.18 in savings and additional revenue for every $1 spent on two years of preschool for three year olds.

Wow! Preschool – the miracle cure to all of society’s ails!

What’s the catch?

Well, little ones who would otherwise be at home playing, eating lunch, taking naps, squeezing play dough, going to play groups, libraries, parks and other fun places with their parents will sit in a well-structured, scientifically based, standards aligned classroom with a teacher whose salary has just been increased to match her new duties. All to get ready for kindergarten.

Sounds like we don’t trust parents to do the job.

The wheels of change in both government and education turn slowly. It takes on average about fifteen to twenty years to implement new programming. By the time new ideas trickle down to the local school level, the needs of the people have changed. For example, the initial push for public preschool came in response to families with two parents working outside the home who needed relief from paying for daycare. It was intended to alleviate financial hardship as well as better prepare disadvantaged children for school.

The trend has changed. According to CBSNEWS.com, more women than ever are choosing to stay at home. The two working parent family is declining. Census bureau statistics show a fifteen percent increase in the number of stay-at-home moms in less than ten years.

So moms will be home but their preschoolers may not be.

If we really value the family AND education, we’ll look for ways to promote both. The National Governor’s Association’s Task Force on School Readiness concluded that the focus should be on the “role of parents as their children’s first teachers.”

“The importance of a strong family and caring parents in a child’s life can’t be overstated,” Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne (R) said in a press release.

So why are we looking for ways to take children out of their homes younger and younger?

We tend to work long hours. We go to the movies with toddlers and babies instead of waiting until we can get a sitter. We pursue our pleasures without considering the cost to children. We leave our spouses, move across country and change churches, schools and jobs with little regard for those we leave behind.

No wonder those in power think children would be better off in school by the age of three.

Raising and educating children costs. But who pays? As parents we can pay now with our time, our energy and our priorities. The alternative is that our children pay later with the loss of a childhood.

© 2006 Vicki Caruana. All rights reserved.