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In an effort to increase academic achievement in underperforming schools, Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) sponsored H.R. 3469, "Universal Prekindergarten and Early Childhood Education Act of 2011" which would amend the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 by including a clause that allows schools that receive the 21st Century Community Learning Center (CCLC) Grants the option to use those funds to aid in the development of a pre-K curriculum staffed by teachers with credentials similar to other teachers in the school. The bill was introduced on Nov. 17, 2011, and in March of this year was referred to the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education.

Last year, shortly after his election, Virginia Senator Bill Carrico (R-Grayson) stated that he felt funding for pre-K programs would be better used elsewhere, and that he did not support state funding of programs such as the Virginia Preschool Initiative. Springfield Supervisor Pat Herrity (R) is also opposed, as he does not feel that governmental involvement in schooling is in the best interest of the state and that programs such as Head Start do an adequate job of meeting pre-K needs in the area. It is also true that pre-K programs and K-12 programs are already competing for limited funding, and a bill such as H.R. 3469 would only increase this competition.

While funding is limited, several studies have shown that publicly funded pre-K programs have positive outcomes for participating youth. Children who participated in the Chicago Child-Parent Centers pre-K program had higher high school completion rates, less substance abuse and lower crime rates in young adulthood than children with similar backgrounds who did not participate. The Virginia Preschool Initiative's pre-K participants are less likely to repeat Kindergarten and more likely to meet or exceed state literacy competencies.

The High/Scope Perry Preschool Study Through Age 40 highlights long-term benefits of publicly funded pre-K programs such as: a reduction in the use of special education programs, lower rates of grade retention, less juvenile delinquency, a decrease in the need for public assistance and an increase in projected earnings.

Pre-K is not only important for the academic achievement of our youth; it also benefits teachers and parents. Introducing universal pre-K would open up job opportunities for early childhood educators with specific teaching credentials. It would also bring to kindergarten teachers students who are more ready to learn. Children would more likely be at a higher level of literacy which would indicate higher levels of overall achievement. Working parents would also benefit. Children who need day care whether they are in pre-K or not, would be receiving a quality, publicly-funded pre-K education. An education taught by qualified teachers that increases the likelihood of preschool cognitive, social and emotional gains and is more likely to result in higher levels of achievement in elementary school and beyond.

Even with programs such as Head Start and the Virginia Preschool Initiative, hundreds of families are on the waitlist in Fairfax County alone, and many never receive services. These are students that, the research shows, will then likely need to receive special education services or will repeat a grade. This is an extra expenditure. Initializing a universal pre-K option is akin to "nipping the problem in the bud." Expanding funding before children enter kindergarten will reduce the need for extensive services later in their education and increase the likelihood of societal contribution in adulthood. The question is not whether we can afford to implement a universal pre-K program, but whether we can afford not to.

Letetia Fender