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Should 4- and 5-year-olds be in school? Yes, optional public preschool is essential

Gordon M. Ambach is Commissioner of Education for the State of New York and president of the University of the State of New York. THE time is ripe for nationwide action to expand early childhood education for four-year-olds. Demographic, social, and economic trends have created the necessity for schools to provide desperately needed services for young children.

Early childhood education programs work. New York state has funded and supported an experimental prekindergarten program since 1966, in which the involvement of parents is an essential element.

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A five-year study found that children in the program had an advantage when they entered kindergarten over children without this early start. They showed higher general reasoning ability and better verbal skills, and they had healthierrelations with other children. The study followed these youngsters through early elementary school and found that they retained much of that edge: prekindergarten children were less likely than thosein the control groups to repeat gradesor be placed in special educationclasses.

A noteworthy point: The program was most effective for children whose mothers were poorly educated and whose family incomes were lower than was typical for the children studied.

Other studies have pointed in the same direction. ``Changed Lives,'' the oft-cited report of the High/Scope Foundation in Ypsilanti, Mich., demonstrates that 19-year-olds who had attended preschool performed better in school and had fewer adolescent pregancies, fewer criminal records, and better employment rates than did those who did not have this early education.

A 1977 study of more than a dozen Head Start programs from across the United States showed that early education improved the school performance of low-income children and reduced the number who repeated grades or were assigned to special education.

Early childhood education isn't just effective for the children; it's a good investment for society as well, reducing later expenditures for special and remedial education, unemployment benefits, welfare payments, and even incarceration.

An early-childhood education is also a necessity in our changing society. Increasing numbers of mothers of young children work oustide the home and need high-quality developmental activity for their youngsters. A majority of children (54 percent) now have working mothers, 70 percent of whom are employed full time. Two out of five children between the ages of 3 and 5 have working mothers, but only one out of five children is enrolled in a full-day education or care program. The movement of mothers into the job force is not likely to decline; most women work out of economic necessity. One-fifth of US families are headed by women, and 73 percent of married women have husbands who earn less than $20,000 a year.

According to US Census Bureau data, morevover, some 27 percent of all children will live with a single parent by 1990 -- and for black children the figure is 57 percent.

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Already, the impact upon early schooling has been marked. Between 1970 and 1980 the proportion of the nation's four-year-olds attending early childhood programs nearly tripled -- from 17 percent to 48 percent. In 1983, more than one-half of all four-year-olds were attending school. But in large measure, preschool is a privilege of the well-to-do: Seventy percent of the four-year-olds from families with incomes above $25,000 in 1980 were attending , but only 33 percent of children from families with incomes below $15,000. There is a major equity issue here.

There should be local, state, and federal funding for prekindergarten classes in schools, along with social services funding for day care. All four-year-old children should have the opportunity to attend and place a foot on an effective education ladder.

I believe prekindergarten should be completely optional, not required, for families who wish to begin their child's education at public expense at the age of four. Children from all kinds of family environments benefit from the oppurtunity for high quality early childhood learning. Children ``at risk'' must have the opportunity for an even start, if not a head start, in their educations.

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