ATLANTA — Rarely do experts extol the virtues of public education in the South.
So it was notable when a report released Thursday said the Southeast led the nation in state-funded early childhood education.
The Southern Education Foundation, a charity based in Atlanta, said the Southeast provided public prekindergarten to the largest percentage of 3- and 4-year-olds in the country: 19%, compared with 12% in the Northeast, 9% in the Midwest and 5.6% in the West.
"That is a dramatic difference," said Steve Suitts, who wrote the report.
He said the South's advances in prekindergarten education could be measured in enrollment and quality: Two-thirds of the states with the highest standards of prekindergarten are in the South.
Suitts said he hoped the report would encourage Southern states to introduce universal prekindergarten education.
Suitts acknowledged that early childhood education alone could not "transform the long-standing patterns of inadequate education and depressed personal income that have plagued and burdened the South." But he said it could be a way for the South to "finally break this long pattern."
The response from education experts was muted.
Some said it was imperative that early childhood education be developed in conjunction with other grade levels. Others said there was little evidence that prekindergarten benefited middle-class children.
"It is clearly ironic that the most conservative region in the country now has the clearest focus on serving poor children," said Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at UC Berkeley. "That's wonderful progress. But I think it's a huge leap of faith to then argue that the benefits available to poor kids should be given to all children."
The Southern Education Foundation report said independent studies showed that children who enrolled in quality prekindergarten programs were more likely than their counterparts to get higher grades, graduate from high school and earn more money as adults.
But Fuller said such studies had focused primarily on African American, Latino and low-income children.
Instead of focusing on universal prekindergarten, one expert said, Southern states should work toward a seamless education that connected prekindergarten with grade school, high school and college.
"While the South may be leading pre-K, what happens next, when the children get to kindergarten, then first grade and ninth grade?" asked Amy Wilkins, vice president of the Education Trust, an independent nonprofit devoted to school reform. "In most Southern states, most kids are not challenged. K-12 standards are not high enough."
A report released a day before the Southern Education Foundation's study said the Southeast had the highest dropout rates in the country.
The nonprofit Editorial Projects in Education Research Center said South Carolina, Georgia and Florida had three of the five lowest high school graduation rates nationwide. South Carolina was at the bottom: 52.5% of students graduate after four years of high school.
Suitts said more money was needed to ensure that students did not drop out, but he insisted that prekindergarten was the fundamental challenge.
The South has trailed the nation in education and income levels since before the Civil War, the Southern Education Foundation report said.
"One of the basic problems of education in all Southern states is that a large number of children, especially low-income children, arrive at school already far behind others in their basic learning skills," Suitts said. "The evidence is clear: High-quality pre-K helps all children, regardless of race, ethnicity or income."
Suitts cited a study by Rutgers University's National Institute for Early Education Research that showed prekindergarten programs in Arkansas, South Carolina and West Virginia had developed children's language, literacy and math skills.
Fuller said a recent study by UC Berkeley and Stanford University showed substantially weaker benefits for middle-class and affluent white children.
The movement for state-funded prekindergarten programs began in 1993 when Georgia Gov. Zell Miller said the state would become the first to establish such a program for low-income children.
Suitts said early leaders such as Georgia, Oklahoma and Texas had fallen behind as their populations had grown.
Not all Southern states have praiseworthy prekindergarten classes. Mississippi, which has the nation's largest percentage of children living in poverty, has no state-financed program. Alabama's program enrolls 1% of its eligible children.