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COLLINS: Improving the state of the 4-year-olds

  • Child care teacher Sheila Brock plays a game with RoyalŽ Hill, 3, from preschool at the Call Child Development Center on the Santa Rosa Junior College campus in Santa Rosa, California on Thursday, March 8, 2012. (BETH SCHLANKER/ The Press Democrat)

One of the big moments of the State of the Union address was President Barack Obama's call for "high-quality preschool" for 4-year-olds.

Nobody was happier at the idea than Walter Mondale, the former vice president.

"This is going to be wonderful," he said in a phone conversation. His delight was sort of inspiring. If I had been down the road Mondale has traveled, my mood would have been a little darker.

In 1971, when he was a senator, Mondale led the congressional drive to make quality preschool education available to every family in the United States that wanted it. Everybody. The federal government would set standards and provide backup services like meals and medical and dental checkups. Tuition would depend on the family's ability to pay.

And it passed! Then Richard Nixon vetoed it, claiming Congress was proposing "communal approaches to child rearing." Now, 42 years later, working parents of every economic level scramble madly to find quality programs for their preschoolers, while the waiting lines for poor families looking for subsidized programs stretch on into infinity.

And Obama is trying, against great odds, to do something for 4-year-olds.

People, think about this for a minute. We have no bigger crisis as a nation than the class barrier. We're near the bottom of the industrialized world when it comes to upward mobility. A child born to poor parents has a pathetic chance of growing up to be anything but poor. This isn't the way things were supposed to be in the United States. But here we are.

Would it be different if all the children born over the past 40 years had been given access to top-quality early education — programs that not only kept them safe while their parents worked but gave them the language and reasoning skills that wealthy families pass on as a matter of course? We'll never know.

Mondale's Comprehensive Child Development Act was a bipartisan bill, which passed 63-17 in the Senate. It was an entitlement, and, if it had become law, it would have been one entitlement for little children in a world where most of the money goes to the elderly.

"We came up with a lot of proposals, but the one we were most excited about was early childhood education. Everything we learned firmed up the view this really works," Mondale said.


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