In Our View: Keep Schools Local

Early education is important, but federal input should remain minimal

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It is inarguable that early education is helpful in providing children with a solid foundation for future learning. Those who do not develop basic skills during preschool often fall behind their peers and never are able to catch up academically throughout their schooling.It also is inarguable that there are vast inequities in the type of schooling that is available to young children. From state to state, from community to community, even from school to school within a community, many children do not have the same access to early learning as others their age, and those inequities often fall along economic divides.

Because of that, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., has co-sponsored a bill titled The Strong Start for America's Children Act. Senate Bill 1697, and companion House Bill 3461, would increase preschool standards and preschool access for children across the country, including providing free schooling for 3- and 4-year-olds from families with moderate or low incomes. The bill would provide federal funding for such enhancements along with requirements for matching state funds. To qualify for funding, states would need to have high standards for preschools and would need to fully fund kindergarten, something not currently done in Washington.

The cost: An estimated $34 billion in federal funding for the first five years, although proponents would say that is a small price to pay. A 2010 report from the Institute for a Competitive Workforce, which is affiliated with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, examined early education and determined that "for every dollar invested today, savings range from $2.50 to as much as $17 in the years ahead." We will point out, however, that the federal government doesn't seem to have an extra $34 billion lying around these days.

In an opinion piece that ran in Sunday's edition of The Columbian, Murray wrote, "In Washington state, 91 percent of eligible 3-year-olds and 80 percent of eligible 4-year-olds don't attend state- or federally funded preschool, and by the time they get to kindergarten, those children are far behind their peers on the path to success."

That is where the arguments can begin. While Murray, in advocating for her bill, is going to use the statistics that best support her argument, she ignores the vast number of children who attend privately funded preschools. Just because a 3- or 4-year-old is not in a school that is supported by the state or the federal government, that doesn't mean they aren't benefiting from early education.

In addition, proponents of The Strong Start for America's Children Act point out studies showing that those who have access to early education are more likely to graduate high school and less likely to use social safety nets later in life. That begets another argument, because it is equally true that parental involvement and parental teaching also is important in setting the future course for young students. That is the question that remains unanswered in a proposal to spend $34 billion over the next five years: To what extent do we hold parents, rather than the federal government, responsible for the development of children?

That being said, it is impossible to ignore the issue of early education, or the fact that The Strong Start for America's Children Act is worthy of discussion. Among the bill's selling points is a focus on the credentials of preschool teachers, requiring a bachelor's degree. Early education for all youngsters is an idea worth pursuing, but public education traditionally has relied upon local funding and local standards and local control. States and local districts have provided the foundation for our public school system, and the federal government has yet to provide a strong case why early education should be any different.