Catching up when it counts


Prenatal care, nutrition programs for infants and children, social programs designed to provide support for struggling young families -- all these efforts help to give poor children the preparation they need to succeed in elementary school. Too often, however, individual states provide only a partial system of support, while key components fall through the cracks.

In the long run, the country will pay a heavy price if it fails to develop the social infrastructure to ensure that American children enter the first grade unburdened by hunger, homelessness or other family problems that will stand in the way of success in school. When children reach first grade unprepared to learn, they often face a game of catch-up in which the odds against success are simply too high.

A new report from the National Governors' Association emphasizes the importance of programs aimed at the pre-school years. School readiness is one of six educational goals for the year 2000 adopted two years ago by the nation's governors and the Bush administration.

All six goals are important, but unless children enter school physically and mentally prepared to learn, there is little hope of widespread success in meeting other goals, such as making American students the world's best in science and mathematics or improving high school graduation rates by 90 percent.

Meeting the school readiness goal could take billions of dollars -- nationwide, as well as skillful coordination of the broad range of programs that will contribute to success in school. Given the budget crises and gridlock that seems to be paralyzing government at all levels, there is a real question as to whether the country can summon the determination to meet this goal.

Even the governors who drew up this report got tangled up in partisan arguments about the kinds of social programs that would contribute to school readiness. Democrats tended to support programs that would include parents in efforts to teach their children basic skills, while Republicans were wary of any approach that might appear to infringe on the privacy of the family. To their credit, the governors recognized that their agreement on the ultimate goal was more important than their disagreements on the appropriate ways of reaching it.

After all, today's first graders will be the backbone of tomorrow's economy. Every American has a stake in their success.

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