[This opinion piece appeared in The Sacramento Bee July 24, 2005.]
Should all parents in the Sacramento region and in California have the opportunity to send their children to a quality preschool? The evidence is now clear and compelling. The benefits — for children, for taxpayers, for the economy, for all of us — are too well documented to ignore.
We now know that 90 percent of brain growth occurs before most children enter kindergarten, making preschool a critical opportunity to lay a foundation for the learning that follows. Children who don't get that strong foundation often struggle in school.
We see it far too often in California: National tests show that just 21 percent of our fourth-graders read proficiently — near rock-bottom in the United States.
We know that children who don't read well in their early elementary school years will continue to struggle in all subjects. Too often, they will need costly remedial and special education. Many will drop out.
We have to start earlier to give these kids a fair chance. Children who have attended quality preschool programs score higher in later years on standardized tests of reading and math. They are better behaved in class, less likely to repeat grades or need special education, more likely to graduate, less likely to end up in jail, and more likely to support themselves as adults. This year, economists at the RAND Corp. projected that for every dollar California invests in quality preschool for all, the public would get more than $2.50 back in savings on these same students during their school years and thereafter.
I've seen these benefits play out — in real, measurable gains for children — in the Elk Grove Unified School District, where I was superintendent for nine years. The district's preschool programs, begun in 1963, now serve 790 children at seven elementary school sites. We know teaching preschool well is every bit as demanding as teaching the grades beyond, so all Elk Grove preschool teachers have college degrees with child-development backgrounds, and all new teachers must be fully credentialed.
The results? For 12 years, Elk Grove has compared the children who attended preschool with the children who did not. At all grade levels, the preschool group of students scored significantly higher on standardized tests than the non-preschool group.
As a region and state, however, we are failing this group of children. Three out of four publicly funded preschools in Sacramento County have eligible children waiting in line to get in. Statewide, only about half of California's 4-year-olds participate in any type of preschool program, according to the 2000 census. Quality private programs are out of reach for many middle-class families, with costs reaching higher than fees in the state university system.
In June 2006, Californians may get the chance to vote on a ballot initiative to provide preschool to all California children whose parents want it.
The initiative demands that preschool no longer be a special program for the poor or a luxury for the well-to-do, but a place where every child can get ready for school. It offers us a chance to do better by our children, better by our schools, and better by our economy. I hope we take it.
This fall in Sacramento County, civic leaders will join to convene a series of conversations about preschool, and how we as a community can seize the opportunity to give all our kids a good start in school and in life. I urge a broad, cross-section of the community to participate — parents, grandparents, businesspeople, educators, law enforcement — because the early education of our young children, and their ability to succeed later in life, is our shared concern and responsibility.