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Election issues: Where McCain, Obama stand on preschool

Submitted by on Monday, 29 September 2008 No Comment
Barack Obama

Barack Obama

We should be past arguing whether quality preschool is a legitimate policy concern for presidential candidates. I know we’re not, though, in part because the subject gets caught up in the shrill, yet nonsensical in this day and age, debate about evil working moms.

So let’s start with evidence, anecdotal and academic.

What Big Guy was tested on at the start of kindergarten:

  • Letter recognition, in random order so the teacher would know if he’d just memorized a cutesy son. He also was asked what sound each letter makes.
  • Number recognition, one through 20. He also was asked to count as high as he could.
  • Twelve colors
  • Six shapes.

What Big Guy will be expected to know by the end of the year:

  • How to read and spell 30 “sight” words
  • Compare two sets of up to 10 objects each and identify which set is bigger.
  • Use objects to find answers to addition and subtraction problems.

It seems obvious that kid who starts school flailing at the first list will be in a world of hurt when it comes to handling the second.

And it’s a problem that can plague them through school. “California‚Äôs sizable achievement gaps in English-language arts and mathematics in second and third grades have early roots, with the same groups of children that lag in academic performance in elementary school trailing in measures of school readiness when they enter kindergarten,” RAND Corp. said in November.

Even more chilling, according to a report this year by the same nonprofit research organization: The children most likely to need preschool help are the least likely to get it.

But wait! It’s gets worse, because even “good” preschools aren’t so hot, according to the 2008 RAND study: “Center-based (Early Childhood Education) programs fall short on key quality benchmarks, particularly those related to early learning environments that foster school readiness and later school success.”

So what do you plan to do about it, Sens. Obama and McCain?

Barack Obama

According to a position paper on the Obama-Biden campaign’s Web site, the Democrats are backing a $10 billion a year investment in “Zero to Five” education.

The money would go toward expanding and improving Head Start, a 43-year-old federal program with a proven track record. It also would be used to “encourage” states to adopt voluntary universal preschool, something studies as recent as May have shown to be effectiveLiberal wish list? Not if you’re serious about leaving no child behind.

The “encouragement” would be primarily through grants, but I wouldn’t mind more stick and less carrot: Do this or lose money. And let’s not even pretend education isn’t a federal issue. The Bush Administration blew up that argument with No Child Left Behind.

The plan also includes expanding the federal Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit to 50 percent for low-income families — it currently maxes out at 35 percent on the first $3,000 spent a year — and making the credit refundable. For personal reasons — such as living in California, where I was paying $966 a month for day care at the peak and $50,000 a year is a good start for a family income — I’d like to see the credit expand at higher incomes, too, but that probably wouldn’t play in Peoria.

Perhaps the most powerful part of the proposal, though, is an expansion of home-visit programs for low-income first-time mothers, helping 570,000 new parents a year learn how to teach and nurture their children. Nanny state? No, a practical recognition that if you don’t help them now, the court system will deal with them later, for those who can’t see the general humanitarian value of such a program.

John McCain

According to a position paper on the McCain-Palin Web site the Republicans would focus on “better leveraging” existing federal programs, except they lump everything from Temporary Aid to Needy Families to social services block grants into that list.

The campaign sharply criticizes Head Start, and even its staunchest backs will concede that the program could improve. This is the only area of preschool policy where McCain delves into any detail, laying out his plan in four bullet points.

The centerpiece: Centers for Excellence in Head Start, at least one per state that would get an extra $200,000 a year to expand programs. A innovation indeed – when it became law in January.

Otherwise, the paper is built around buzzwords.

McCain backs “measurable standards,” a term that sends chills down my spine because it’s led to the test-taking culture that pervades public schools today. But, what the heck, let’s line 5-year-olds up before a firing squad and drill them like they do in Florida. Care to guess who was governor when that plan became law?

McCain’s also for “parental education and involvement,” but the position paper merely says existing federal programs will be focused on “educating parents on the basics of preparing their children for a productive educational experience.”

And he’s for “quality instruction,” pledging to “promote the replication of professional development programs with a proven record of preparing our children for kindergarten and encourage more research to determine what skills and training make the most difference for young children.” I’m at a loss as to how he’d “promote” and “encourage” — send out news releases and hold pep rallies?

Copyright 2008 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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