The scene at San Francisco's Grace Child Development Center could have been lifted straight from a feel-good movie. On a perfect summer day the cameras rolled and reporters crowded around as filmmaker and preschool activist Rob Reiner joined a table of 4-year-olds. He found himself talking about movies with a precocious girl named Diamond, who has ambitions to be a movie star–both Reiner and Diamond are fans of The Cat in the Hat–and April, a would-be doctor who can almost spell her name.
Reiner was on hand to celebrate the launch of the city's universal pre-kindergarten program. Flanked by local politicians, he turned the occasion into a rally for a proposed measure that would guarantee access to a high-quality preschool for every 4-year-old in the state. The initiative will be on the June 2006 ballot. "Even though preschool isn't a sexy issue, it's a critical issue," he said. "If we don't make an investment in young children, we have no chance of reaching the society we want."
In recent years this message–that early education isn't something that should be left entirely to families; that the government also has an obligation to improve the lives of young children–has started to resonate with parents, voters and taxpayers. Publicly supported pre-kindergartens are proliferating nationwide. Four states (Florida, Oklahoma, Georgia and New York) now formally guarantee universal preschool, and thirty-seven others support some preschool programs.
"California is the future of this movement," says Karen Hill Scott, a child-development expert who has been deeply involved in shaping preschool policy. "It's one of just a handful of states where the number of children is increasing. There are enough children under age 5 to constitute the seventh biggest state in the country." Because of the sheer magnitude of the preschool initiative–its $2.3 billion price tag is more than a third the size of the entire Head Start budget–as well as the state's outsized influence on national politics, a yes vote is a potential tipping point. Within a generation, preschool may be almost as commonplace as kindergarten–and preschool could become the entering wedge in a broader campaign to improve the lives of children.
The Power of Science
The ideological sea change, away from rugged individualism and toward greater public involvement in the service of the very young, stems less from altruism than enlightened self-interest. It owes a lot to the emerging research-based understanding of how the cognitive and emotional lives of children unfold.
Long-term studies of model programs like Abecedarian, in North Carolina, which provided an array of services to children from birth to age 5, and Chicago's Child-Parent Centers, demonstrate that young children reap the benefits for the rest of their lives–fewer repeat a grade or are assigned to special-education classes or get into trouble with the law; more graduate from high school.
The results of the Perry Preschool study are especially impressive. In 1962, before Head Start or the "war on poverty," fifty-eight African-American children from poor families enrolled in a preschool in Ypsilanti, Michigan. There was a well-trained (and well-paid) teacher for every six youngsters, and in addition to the half-day classes, teachers met with parents for several hours a week. Because there were more applicants than the program could accommodate, a similar group of children was denied this experience, and that became the basis for one of the most famous social science experiments ever conducted.