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Minds Meet on Preschoolers

January 25, 2002

They make an odd couple, President Bush and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). Bring up tax cuts and they are enemies. On education they have become the best of friends.

Fresh from their bipartisan overhaul of federal education legislation, they focus now on preschoolers. They agree on the importance of reaching children early, before they show up in first grade unprepared for reading instruction because they don't know the alphabet or their vocabularies are stunted.

Bush considers the teaching of children through age 5 "a new frontier'' in education. And in a recent speech at the National Press Club, Kennedy urged Washington to make educating children under 6 years old a national priority, a wish that the White House is prepared to help make real.

So far, there are no bills that spell out who, what, when, where and--the most important matter as deficits replace surpluses--how much. Even so, the likelihood of a compromise has increased because the two leaders seem willing to ignore Republicans loath to work with a Kennedy and Democrats who want to deny the president another political victory on an issue popular with voters.

The odd alliance has an effective ally in First Lady Laura Bush, a former teacher and librarian. In testimony Thursday before Kennedy's Senate Health, Education and Labor Committee, she discussed how babies learn language, how to increase pre-reading skills and how to recruit good teachers--for starters by paying more.

Both the president and the senator believe that Head Start, the preschool program for disadvantaged children that began in 1965, should become more like school and less like day care. During the presidential campaign, Bush called for a certified teacher in every classroom. Kennedy doesn't want to risk urban schools losing good teachers to preschools. He would improve the quality of preschool teachers through training, certification and higher salaries.

These aren't big differences. Bush and Kennedy need to seize this fraternal moment and cut a deal to deliver more money to Head Start, while revamping that federal program to focus on proven ways to prepare youngsters for reading. Then, since education is really a state and local issue, they should persuade Congress to give states more money and incentives to invest in their own similar programs, which should include families that earn too much to qualify for Head Start.

Kids need all the friends they can get in Washington. They can't vote or write large checks to get things done. Like the big brother who sticks up for his smaller siblings on the playground, Bush and Kennedy have stepped forward for preschoolers. Washington's partisan bullies should get out of the way.

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