Full-day school for younger children spreading Lawmakers recognize benefits, expand funding for low-income students


TRENTON, N.J. -- State lawmakers across the country are beginning to recognize what first-grade teachers like Roseann DeLuca have long known: Children who attend full-day kindergarten and preschool are far better prepared to succeed in school than those who do not.

"They seem more ready to learn to read," said DeLuca, who has taught first grade for 10 years in Perth Amboy, N.J. "They are more verbal -- not all of them, but the majority of them. I would say that they are used to the school routine. It is very important, otherwise you spend your time teaching that."

With one study after another showing the benefits of early childhood education, a growing number of states are creating and expanding school programs for 4-year-olds.

In the last year alone, New York, Connecticut and New Jersey have begun spending tens of millions of dollars to make more preschool and full-day kindergarten programs available.

New York is providing $50 million in state aid to help school districts with the most low-income children, including New York City, make more preschool slots available to 4-year-olds beginning in September. Legislation adopted last year would require all school districts to provide half-day pre-kindergarten classes, regardless of income, within four years. State aid would rise to about $500 million annually.

New Jersey and Connecticut, like most states, are targeting school districts with large numbers of children from low-income families. But New Jersey's state Supreme Court is considering whether to require the state to further expand its half-day program for 4-year-olds to full-day preschool for children ages 3 and 4.

At least 33 states are spending some state dollars on preschool programs, with about two dozen substantially increasing such spending in recent years. Most programs focus on children from low-income families.

In Connecticut, House Speaker Thomas Ritter, a Democrat, said he became convinced that increasing spending to put children from low-income families in preschool would save taxpayers millions over the long run.

"I did not come into this as an early-childhood expert or advocate," said Ritter, who pushed through the legislation. "But it was clear from study after study that every dollar you spend now saves seven dollars down the road. And it levels the playing field for children and gives them an opportunity to succeed."

He pointed out that most children from higher-income families attend preschool. The most recent federal study shows that three-quarters of children age 3 to 5 from households with more than $50,000 in income were enrolled in prekindergarten programs, compared with 45 percent of children from families with incomes below $30,000.

Connecticut has outlined the most ambitious agenda for children from low-income families by seeking to provide full-day, year-round programs for 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds. The state will spend about $86 million over the next two years in 14 mostly urban school districts with the expectation that spending will double in five years.

Instead of giving the money to school districts, the state is asking municipalities to design and oversee the programs with newly created advisory councils. The state is encouraging local governments to make grants to existing nursery schools, day-care centers, and community-based organizations, like Head Start, rather than to add classrooms in already crowded school buildings.

The legislation also provides extra money for child care subsidies to help working low-income families and tax-exempt financing to help child care centers expand.

Pub Date: 3/22/98

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