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Early childhood plan will require some extra thought

December 19, 2002

With Pennsylvania lawmakers scrambling to deal with a major revenue shortfall, it's unlikely that Gov.-elect Ed Rendell's ambitious early-childhood education program will make much headway in 2003. But a little extra time spent crafting this program might make a big difference in how well it works.

Rendell's program would cost $100 million and would provide preschool programs for 3- and 4-year-olds, with admissions priority going to children from low-income families.

Kindergarten would be made available to all 5-year-olds and all-day kindergarten would be offered in those school districts where it would be most likely to improve children's performance in first grade.

But even assuming that there's state money available for these programs, a couple of important questions need to be answered, including:

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- Where will local school districts get the space for these programs? The kindergarten proposal alone will require additional space in every school, not to mention the additional cost of heating, cooling and maintaining that space.

- Who will decide on the curriculum for the pre-school programs? This past Sunday the Associated Press reported that a six-month study by researchers at Temple, Penn State and the University of Pittsburgh found that 80 percent of existing pre-school programs don't do a good job of preparing students for elementary school. Who'll redesign such programs, and at what cost?

- How will this initiative tie in with the federal "No Child Left Behind" law? This week the National Conference of State Legislatures reported that the federal government has provided a large mandate, but only 7 percent of the cash needed to do the job. Once the federal mandates are fulfilled, will there be enough money left for early-childhood programs?

All things considered, Rendell may be glad he has some extra time to plan this program before he actually has to put it in place.

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