STOCKBRIDGE -- Let's do what works," President Obama said in his State of the Union address -- an exhortation worth applauding since the country seems unable to do what works much of the time. He was talking about universal preschool education and working with states to make high quality preschool available to every child in America. Obama pointed out that establishing a universal preschool program will increase high school graduation rates, reduce teen pregnancy and even reduce violent crime.

Right now, fewer than three in 10 four-year-olds are enrolled in high-quality preschool. The reasons are varied but expense and availability are among them. Many families cannot afford high-quality preschool and end up with substandard choices. The National Institute for Early Education Research reports that in 2010-11, only 28 percent of four- year-olds attended state funded preschool. In Chicago, two-thirds of children in poor communities do not have access to preschool.

Some states offer state-funded preschool programs, and some are highly successful. In New Jersey, "students who attended a high-quality public preK out-perform their peers in language, literacy, and math through the second grade," according to a 2009 study. There are programs like North Carolina's Abecedarian Project and the Chicago Child- parent Center that have a positive impact. But state funding has declined in many of those states --10 have already cut spending to preschool programs.


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Lane Kenworthy wrote an editorial in the Christian Science Monitor last year, pointing out that we live in a "modern intensive parenting culture." But low-income parents cannot participate in that culture of dance and music lessons and summer camp. They are less likely to read and talk to their children, and "to set and enforce clear rules and routines for their children. Instead of daycare, their children are often left with a baby-sitter or relative who parks them in front of the television. Low-income parents are also less likely to encourage their children to aspire to high achievement in school and, later, at work . . ." So the achievement gap keeps widening and along with it, the opportunity gap.

What we need is a model that provides sufficient support for children who need it. "The single most valuable step lawmakers could take would be to implement universal childcare and preschool. Think of it as extending public schooling down in the age range," Lane says.

I attended preschool recently -- my dog is a therapy dog and we worked in a class of about 18 three-and four-year-olds,. We joined in circle time where the children learn to share and listen and take turns. I had almost forgotten, until I got to be a participant and witness, the importance of exposing children to books and letters, numbers and shapes, rules, and of teaching them how to socialize and compromise. It wouldn't hurt members of Congress to spend some time in preschool.

It costs $30,000 a year to keep an inmate in prison. Two-thirds of prison inmates never finished high school. The average cost for sending a four-year-old to public preschool is about $7,000 a year. The National Institutes of Health, looked at a preschool program in Chicago, and estimated every dollar spent on early education generated $11 in economic benefits over a child's lifetime. Most of them will finish high school.

"Hope is found in what works," Obama told teachers in Decauter, Georgia last week. "This works. We know it works. If you are looking for a good bang for your educational buck, this is it. Right here."

Why wouldn't we want to make this work?

Michelle Gillett is a regular Eagle contributor.