- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 20, 2001

D.C. Council members yesterday proposed forcing city toddlers to attend school in a push to expand early childhood education and learning.
The legislation, introduced by Ward 7 Democrat Kevin Chavous, would require all children who turn 3 and 4 years old before Dec. 31 in an academic year to participate in public, private or parochial school or be instructed "privately." Home schooling would count as private instruction, council members said.
"We have to get to every child early," said Mr. Chavous, chairman of the councils education committee. "Too many children are entering the first grade not prepared to learn."
The proposal could cost up to $50 million in the first year to provide about 10,000 spots. The city currently schools about 4,000 children under 5 years old in optional programs such as Head Start.
City officials said the proposal, sponsored by seven of the 13 council members, has enough support so far to become law.
"I am supporting this type of legislation," said Adrian Fenty, Ward 4 Democrat, who agreed to co-sponsor the bill late yesterday. "The bill may have to be implemented in phases or scaled back, but we just cant stop doing things because they cost money."
The bill calls for a pilot program to begin in fall 2003, with full implementation by fall 2004.
The proposal has the support of school Superintendent Paul L. Vance, who says expanding education for younger children is consistent with the most recent research on the development of the brain in the very young. It will help overcome negative environmental influences, too, he adds.
"Educating children at an early age addresses, to a large extent, many of the problems we have in overcoming some of the social and cognitive disadvantages that our urban youth have by the time they are 5 years old," he said.
"The earlier we can get these youngsters in school and make positive social and cognitive impressions, the better our chance of having productive learners."
But the initiative has left some parents grumbling over its "highhandedness."
"I worry about the compulsory part," said Susan Gushue, a D.C. parent and mother of five children, including a 3-year-old.
"It would be great if there were more programs like the Montessori for 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds. But this puts DCPS again in the position of 'saving children from their own parents."
She added that existing programs are not fully utilized.
"Maybe they need to find out why," she said.
School board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz supports the program but thinks the city wont fund such an initiative.
"Theoretically, Mr. Chavous proposal is fabulous — especially considering the research that exists about the benefits of early childhood learning," she said. "The measure is disingenuous, however, unless it is also coupled with the funding necessary to enact such a piece of legislation."
But city officials pledged to push toward expanding education opportunities for younger children.
"I, like the Board of Education and the superintendent of schools, have a deep and abiding interest in early childhood education," said D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams. "Should the Board of Education decide to expand instruction to earlier grades, I would be supportive of that."

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