PRINCETON, N.J. -- Like the auto repair ad that warned, "You can pay me now or you can pay me later," the nation's governors have concluded that it is far better to spend money on preparing children for school than to pay for the problems that result if they don't.
In one of three progress reports on state efforts to reach national education goals by 2000, a committee of governors at the 84th annual National Governors' Association meeting said assuring that children are ready to learn is cost-effective over the long term.
The report shows that children who have the benefit of an early education are more likely to graduate from high school, go to college and have a job -- and they are less likely to end up on welfare or lead a life of crime.
Governors were urged to back programs that assure that children arrive at school in good health and properly fed, and that they live and learn in settings free from crime or violence.
The report said that states should help poor mothers with prenatal care -- and with substance abuse if necessary -- and with obtaining basic immunizations for their children.
States should also do what they can to discourage smoking and to free disadvantaged children from environments that contain lead paint, it said.
"It's a way of investing to avoid a [larger] cost in the future," said Gov. George V. Voinovich, an Ohio Republican and chairman of the association's Action Team on School Readiness.
The report says, for example, that prenatal services can cost as little as $400 to $600 per client but that intensive care for low-birth-weight babies or premature infants can easily cost $1,000 per day.
"About one-third of children go to school not ready to learn. We want to eliminate much of that by the year 2000," said Gov. Bruce King, a New Mexico Democrat.
Much of yesterday's round-table discussion focused on ways that governors can get Cabinet officials and department heads to collaborate on overlapping problems of health, social services and education that have been traditionally treated as distinct issues.
In the report, Maryland is cited for doing essentially what the association is suggesting: coordinating the interrelated activities of several departments through a special sub-Cabinet agency for children, youth and families.
Gov. William Donald Schaefer is a member of the school readiness panel. He was not expected to arrive at the governor's meeting until last night.
"Often, when we get with educators, they bring up, 'How much money are you spending on education?' " Mr. Voinovich said.
"They don't realize we're spending money on infant nutrition" and other programs to make children ready for school.
"Yet they bitterly complain when students show up not ready to learn," he said.