obamaThere’s a great article in the New York Times, “Obama Pledge Stirs Hope in Early Childhood Education,” about what we can look forward to in the new Administration when it comes to the education of preschool kids. I listened closely to what Barack Obama said about education all through the Presidential campaign, and he almost always, in his speeches and debates, singled out preschoolers for special mention.

George W’s “No Child Left Behind” law basically acted as if preschoolers weren’t there. But that, I hope, is about to change. And will libraries have a role to play? Geez, I hope so – but probably not unless we library folks are out there with cymbals and kazoos, making a racket.

Obama wants to get programs such as Early Head Start, which Bill Clinton started up in 1994, better funded and taking a more critical role. But early childhood education in the U.S. is a nationwide mishmash. The article describes it:

“It’s a patchwork quilt, a tossed salad, a nonsystem,” said Libby Doggett, executive director of Pre-K Now, a group that presses for universal, publicly financed prekindergarten.

There are federal and state, public and private, for-profit and nonprofit programs. Some unfold in public school classrooms, others in storefront day care centers, churches or Y.M.C.A.’s, and still others in tiny centers run out of private homes.

“California has 22 different funding streams for child care and preschool, and that mirrors the crazy labyrinth of funding sources coming out of Washington,” said Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who is the author of “Standardized Childhood: The Political and Cultural Struggle Over Early Education.”

ALA, ALSC, and PLA (the American Library Association, the Association for Library Services for Children, and the Public Library Association) began their big “Every Child Ready to Read” program in public libraries partly because early childhood programs were fragmented and disorganized, and someone needed to step up and offer parents everywhere a great pre-literacy resource in every community’s library.

There are tons more baby times, toddler times, and other pre-literacy-oriented programs going on in libraries nationwide than there were ten years ago – and I say, hooray!

But do you see the national press recognizing what public libraries do for young children? Um, no; not really. Do you see any mention of libraries in this NY Times article? I don’t.

What does this mean? It means that we have to make certain that people (parents, teachers, program directors, just plain folks) know more about how public library programs and materials can help prepare young children for school, for the working world, and for their lives.

Obama cited in his platform a famous study (at least famous among early childhood education advocates) about the value of spending government funds to support education (including pre-literacy education) for young lower-income kids, who need it the most:

One much-cited study is of a preschool program that offered high-quality services to a few dozen black children in Ypsilanti, Mich., in the early 1960s at a two-year cost per child of about $15,000. The study found that the investment, 40 years later, had rendered economic returns to society of some $244,000 per child, much of that in savings from reduced criminal activity. Critics have challenged the findings, in part because of the small number of children involved.

Mr. Obama’s platform accepts the broad logic of the Ypsilanti study. “For every one dollar invested in high-quality, comprehensive programs supporting children and families from birth,” the platform says, “there is a $7-$10 return to society in decreased need for special education services, higher graduation and employment rates, less crime, less use of the public welfare system and better health.”

I hope this will be an exciting time for those who work with young children in libraries, but it won’t be unless we make noise. We librarians need to insist on expanding our role. So offer people in early childhood programs the library’s assistance. Pay visits to preschools, Head Starts, and child care centers. Put up signs in the library. We can grab a big opportunity if we work hard for it.

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