Preschool has always been a privately funded affair, at least for most middle-class families. What has changed is its role for middle-class children. Over the past generation, the image of preschool has transformed from an optional stopover for little kids to a "prerequisite" for elementary school. Parents have been barraged with articles telling them that early education is important for everything from "pre-reading" skills to social development. As one expert in early childhood education observes, "In many communities around the country, kindergarten is no longer aimed at the entry level. And the only way Mom and Dad feel they can get their child prepared is thрough a pre-kindergarten program".
Middle-class parents have stepped into line with the experts' recommendations. Today, nearly two-thirds of America's three- and four-year-olds atttend preschool, compared with just 4 percent in the mid-1960s . This isn't just the by-product of more mothers entering the workforce; nearly half of all stay-at-home moms now send their kids to a prekindergarten program . As Newsweek put it, "The science says it all: preschool programs are neither a luxury nor a fad, but a real necessity".
As demand has heated up, many families have found it increasingly difficult to find a kindergarten with an empty slot. [...] Once again, today's parents find themselves caught in a trap. A generation ago, when nursery schools was regarded as little more than a chance for Mom to take a break, parents could consider the economics in a fairly detached way, committing to pay no more than they could afford. And when only a modest number of parents where shopping for those preschool slots, the prices had to remain low to attract a full class. Today, when scores of experts routinely proclaim that preschool is decisive in a child's development, but a slot in a preschool - any preschool - can be hard to come by, parents are in a poor position to shop around for lower prices.
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The solution here is pretty obvious: Extend the scope of public education. If Americans generally believe that educational programs should begin at age three, why should public education wait to kick in at age five or six? [...] The absence of publicly funded preschools is an anachronism, one that could easily be remedied. A host of politicians, including 2000 Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore and Congressman Richard Gephardt, have proposed publicly funded, universal preschool. . We agree—it is high time.