Table: Starting School at Age Three

Universal preschool education is on the political front burner again

NUMBER OF CHILDREN

There are 8.3 million three- to- five-year-olds in the U.S., many of whom get little formal exposure to reading or numbers.

COST

Preschool would run $4,000 to $5,000 a year per kid, or $33 billion to $42 billion if every child were enrolled in a voluntary program. Head Start costs roughly $6,600 a year.

BENEFITS

Studies show that early learning helps poor children, which experts say is evidence that middle-class kids would benefit as well, although less so. Poor three- to- five-year-olds who get high-quality basic education consistently score about five percentage points higher on school tests through age 21 than those who get no early schooling. Only 30% repeat a grade, vs. 56% of those with no schooling. And some 35% attend college by age 21, vs. 14% of other poor kids.

WHO'S ON THE BANDWAGON

President Bush wants to spend $45 million to study the best early-childhood teaching techniques. Senators Kennedy and Voinovich have proposed a $1 billion-a-year plan to fund state early education programs for all kids under five. The Committee for Economic Development, a business group, is pushing a national preschool program for all three- to five-year-olds.

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