Jon Marcus reports on election spending pledges for the under-fives.
THE educational reform movement in the United States has continued at breakneck speed with a massive expansion of pre-school programmes for three and four-year-olds.
Forty-two of the 50 states now offer free or subsidised pre-school places, and enrolment has swelled to 750,000 children, although that is still only a fraction of the 13 million in other forms of day care.
Government spending on pre-school programmes has increased ten-fold in barely a decade, to $1.5 billion (pound;1bn), with much of this growth in the past few years.
Many of the new state programmes are aimed at poor children, who are considered less likely to receive sufficient preparation for school because their parents work or are often absent. But an increasing number are intended to serve all children, regardless of family income.
Pre-school has now become an issue in the presidential campaign, with vice-president Al Gore, the Democrats' front-runner, proposing to spend $50bn over 10 years on universal pre-school provision, and his Republican opponent George W Bush pushing a less costly but similar idea.
"Preparation for education begins long before formal schooling," Mr Gore said.
"Many of our children reach their first classroom ready to learn, but others do not. And, tragically, all too many who start out behind never catch up. Reforming our schools is an urgent national priority that requires a national strategy."
Other reforms include a move towards a standardised curriculum and testing, and better teacher training. Some reformers would also like to see more parental choice, including voucher schemes.
Governor Bush, who has made sweeping and controverial changes to the educational system in his home state of Texas, wants to expand the well-established federal pre-school programme, Head Start, which serves poor children.
Under the Bush plan, Head Start would be overhauled to place a greater emphasis on education - specifically reading skills and school readiness - and drop its existing secondary role providing job training, health care and other services for low-income parents.
Both candidates cite research showing that early education leads to higher achievement in the longer term.
University of North Carolina researchers who followed disadvantaged children for two decades found that those who attended an early education programme were more likely to attend university, hold jobs and delay parenthood than those who didn't.
Findings such as these have already prompted many states to expand their pre-school programmes. The southern state of Georgia, for example, offers free pre-school to all families, regardless of income, using proceeds from a state lottery. More than 70 per cent of the state's four-year-olds are already enrolled.
Oklahoma and New York are also beginning to make pre-school universally available, New Jersey aims to provide pre-school for at least 44,000 of its poorest children and Connecticut is phasing in free universal pre-school over five years. It already has 6,500 children in all-day programmes, despite some criticism that taxpayers are having to pay for working parents' free childcare.
Others outside the government are also pushing pre-school. In January, the Lucent Technologies Foundation announced a $1 million grant to encourage universal pre-school. And last year, Bank of America announced it would give $50m to 13 early-years projects.