If the United States is to compete successfully in the 21st century, it will have to do a better job of cultivating its most important asset -- the children who as adults will make up the work force. As things stand now, children get little more than lip service as a national priority. A new report from the National Governors' Association hopes to change that.
The report focuses on getting young children ready for school, so that they do not enter first grade distracted by poor health, family troubles or other problems that now cause many young pupils to face a hopeless catch-up game from the day they first enter the schoolhouse door.
School readiness is one of six educational goals for the year 2000 adopted in 1990 by the nation's governors and the Bush administration. All six goals are important, but there is widespread recognition that unless children enter the first grade physically and mentally prepared to learn, it will be impossible to make American students the world's best in science and math, to improve high school graduation rates by 90 percent or to meet any of the other national goals.
Even so, programs that contribute to school readiness could take billions of dollars nationwide and, given the budget crises at every level of government, there is no assurance that federal, state and local governments will find the will to implement the recommendations.
Moreover, in preparing the report the governors found that even the question of how to help children get ready for school is subject to partisan wrangling. For example, Democrats wanted to foster programs that would include parents in efforts to teach their children basic skills, while Republicans feared that such approaches could infringe on the privacy of the family unit. Divisions like that one aren't new -- and their existence is not as important as the fact that the governors heatedly debated their differences and ended up close enough together to agree on the new report.
To their credit, the governors recognized that there are many ways for states to foster school readiness, from increasing funding for prenatal care for uninsured pregnant women as California is doing, to better coordination of state departments and agencies as Maryland does through its special subcabinet for children, youth and families.
There is no single way to prepare children to be successful students. But failure will carry a heavy price, both in human terms and in its toll on the nation's hopes for future prosperity. The governor's report highlights the need for a major shift in priorities at both the state and national levels in order to prepare young children to learn.