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Education chief: Early schooling crucial

| Saturday, April 12, 2003

State-funded preschool programs, full-day kindergarten and smaller class sizes are vital to a young child's educational success later in life, state Secretary of Education Vicki L. Phillips told a Pittsburgh audience Friday.

Phillips and other state education officials addressed more than 100 parents, education advocates and school officials, who applauded the outline of Gov. Ed Rendell's vision for Pennsylvania schools -- a proposal that he wants to fund by increasing the state income tax and expanding legalized gambling to permit slots at race tracks.

Enactment of the new education programs is crucial to bringing Pennsylvania up to par compared with other states, Phillips said. The state is, for instance, one of only nine that does not provide money for preschool programs.

"We are making sure that the youngest children get the most successful start they can get," she said during a public forum yesterday at the Holiday Inn in Oakland, in conjunction with National Week of the Young Child.

Ronald L. Grimm, superintendent of the Woodland Hills School District, said children with strong early education programs perform better in school.

"A child's capacity for success is shaped in those early years," he said.

Rendell's plan calls for $1.3 billion over three years for three programs: early childhood education; student achievement programs, such as tutoring and technology; and rewards and grants for schools. The early childhood education program would provide full-day kindergarten at all districts, tutoring for struggling students up to the 11th grade, and class sizes of no more than 17 students in kindergarten through third grade.

The program also would provide voluntary preschool for 4-year-olds in low-income school districts, which would decide whether to provide the schooling themselves or go through private companies. The program is optional, Phillips said.

"Ultimately, we would hope that as the economy turns we could be able to include all children," Phillips later said in an private interview. "But focusing on our at-risk children is a great start."

Alex Matthews, a Pittsburgh Public Schools board member and former president of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, said state funding is critical for Rendell's proposed programs because districts otherwise are burdened.

"They're tired of mandates coming down from the state and no funding," he said.

Rendell's educational proposals have sparked criticism from many quarters, particularly because of the proposed income tax increase from 2.8 percent to 3.75 percent to help pay for it.

The Democratic governor must gain support from the Republican-controlled Legislature to carry out his initiatives.

But Pennsylvania already is a top spender in per-pupil funding and teacher salaries, Matthew J. Brouillette, president of the Commonwealth Foundation, a Harrisburg think tank, said. Early schooling, he said, will not solve flaws in the public education system.

"We're hacking at the branches and we need to be striking at the root," he said.

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