- The Washington Times - Friday, January 25, 2002

First lady Laura Bush made her debut before a Senate committee yesterday, telling lawmakers that preschool programs must be improved to ensure children start school with basic language and reading skills.

“The early-childhood field needs better curriculum that does a better job of helping young children with their pre-reading and language skills,” Mrs. Bush told members of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, which is chaired by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat.

Mrs. Bush was originally set to testify before the panel on September 11, but the hearing was postponed because of the terrorist attacks.

Mr. Kennedy praised Mrs. Bush for her “strength and calm and elegance” in leading the country through the difficult time after the attacks. Mrs. Bush pledged to work with him and others “to make sure that children’s learning skills are nurtured during the critical years between the crib and the classroom.”

The former librarian and grade-school teacher said early childhood programs should teach print concepts, letter knowledge and phonological concepts. She said this type of teaching for preschool kids “has not been emphasized enough in the past.”

She also said teachers should be paid higher wages and colleges should focus as much on their teaching programs as they do on their law and medical programs. She said Congress can play a role by providing funding for early-childhood programs and research.

Mr. Kennedy plans to develop legislation to improve preschool and early-childhood programs and is holding a series of hearings to gather expert advice on the subject.

“The goal is to ensure that all kids come ready to learn by grade 1,” said Jim Manley, spokesman for Mr. Kennedy. “We’re conducting a series of hearings to see how we’re going to get to that.”

Mrs. Bush said as a grade-school teacher she saw that some children had trouble reading because they had not developed the basic building blocks of language during their preschool years.

“I realized that, for many children, being left behind did not begin in elementary school it began in the years between diapers and the first backpacks,” she said.

She encouraged all parents to begin reading to their children early when the babies are six months old because science has proven that early language development leads to stronger reading skills.

President Bush has asked Education Secretary Rod Paige and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson to convene a task force on early childhood development to identify priorities for research, Mrs. Bush said.

Although nothing has been decided yet, the Senate education committee is considering expanding the existing federal Head Start program. In a Jan. 16 speech, Mr. Kennedy said that “after nearly 35 years of investment in Head Start, only three out of every five eligible children are enrolled.”

He also said Early Head Start the only federal program serving infants and toddlers living in poverty reaches less than 5 percent of eligible children.

A Republican aide on the committee said the Head Start program has never been adequately examined to see if it is effective. A study is currently being conducted and preliminary results are expected by the end of 2002, the aide said.

The panel’s next hearing will likely be in early February.

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