ALEX COHEN, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Cohen.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

I'm Madeleine Brand. In a few minutes, we meet the bad guy from the hit TV show "Lost." He could tell you what happens in the season finale, but then he'd have to kill you.

COHEN: But first, Senator Hillary Clinton has announced an initiative she'd like to launch. If elected president, she gave Matt Lauer a preview on NBC's "Today Show."

Senator HILLARY CLINTON (Democratic, New York): Matt, I want every four-year-old, regardless of parental income, to have access to high-quality pre-K.

COHEN: Pre-K, or pre-kindergarten. Many experts believe it's a critical component of a successful school experience. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has more.

Ms. PAT CASTILLO-CAMPOS(ph) (Preschool Teacher, Norwood St. Elementary School): Who's ready to start?

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: It's midmorning at the Norwood St. Elementary School, just south of downtown L.A. Pat Castillo-Campos is working with the four- and five-year-olds in her pre-K class. They're matching pictures with letters.

Ms. CASTILLO-CAMPOS: Can you say Iris?

Unidentified Group: Iris.

Ms. CASTILLO-CAMPOS: (Unintelligible) the flower here. Check and see. That's a 10-letter.

Unidentified child: Oh, it's an ice cream. Like this one.

Ms. CASTILLO-CAMPOS: That's right. It's an ice cream like that one.

GRIGSBY BATES: This busy, cheerful classroom has tables dedicated to counting and sorting and cutting and coloring.

Ms. CASTILLO-CAMPOS: Start to color it first and then I'll tell you. No cutting. No cutting right now.

GRIGSBY BATES: Programs like this one at Norwood are designed to offer kids a chance to get used to the mechanics of school. These children are learning how to take turns, line up, how to raise their hands to speak. And many of these kids are learning or improving their English in this bilingual classroom.

Ms. CASTILLO-CAMPOS: Mariano(ph), (Spanish spoken). I'll tell you what to do when we go back. Do you hear me?

GRIGSBY BATES: All of those things will prepare them to be better students in kindergarten the following year. It's real work, and Pat Castillo-Campos wants people to be clear on what pre-K isn't.

Ms. CASTILLO-CAMPOS: Yeah. I just wouldn't want parents to think that this is like a babysitting service.

GRIGSBY BATES: Here, they're learning their ABC's, they're counting to 30, and they get homework, usually something to improve hand-eye coordination or motor skills.

Catherine Atkin wishes all of California's four-year-olds could have what this class at Norwood is getting.

Ms. CATHERINE ATKIN (President, Preschool California): We know that the foundation that gets laid both those pre-literacy, pre-math and social skills have a lot to do with how able they are to be successful in kindergarten and beyond.

GRIGSBY BATES: Atkin is president of Preschool California. It's a nonprofit group that's working toward universal pre-K throughout the state. Atkin says it's obvious to her that the desire for quality pre-K programs is there, especially among low-income families.

Ms. ATKIN: In California, we know we have a huge waiting list for publicly financed preschool programs. For every 10 children in preschool programs, four are turned away.

GRIGSBY BATES: The problem is this: Quality pre-K is expensive. When California voters were faced with an initiative last year to fund universal pre-K, they rejected it. The money required for such programs is a reality check for pre-K advocates.

But, as Hillary Clinton claimed on the "Today Show," not spending on pre-K could have dire ramifications down the road.

Sen. CLINTON: If you don't invest early, you don't get the results that you need in those later grades. You know, there's a lot of corrections officials who use reading scores from third and fourth grade to make predictions about how many prison beds they're going to need.

GRIGSBY BATES: A number of states like Georgia, Oklahoma and Illinois are hoping to avoid those calculations by investing in pre-K now. Florida passed a universal pre-K education initiative in 2002. After a few years of tweaks, the state's first pre-K class is getting ready to graduate.

David Lawrence is president of the Early Childhood Initiative. It's a Miami-based nonprofit. He was one of the key figures in a coalition that got universal pre-K passed. Lawrence says the first time they introduced a ballot initiative, voters balked when they were told mostly low-income children would benefit from the program. His coalition tried again with a broader approach.

Mr. DAVID LAWRENCE (President, Early Childhood Initiative): We said it was about everyone's child, and in fact it was significantly, if not overwhelmingly, passed because of that.

GRIGSBY BATES: Middle-income Florida voters felt better about supporting a program that was open to them even if they never used it. This year's program has over 100,000 four-year-olds. That number will expand next year.

Expensive? Sure. But David Lawrence said it's not as expensive as a remedial education has been so far. He's convinced the United States has the way, it just needs to find the will to fund universal pre-K and leave no preschool child behind.

Mr. LAWRENCE: Any country that can figure out how to spend $8 billion every single month to bring democracy to Iraq sure as heck could do a lot better by our own children.

GRIGSBY BATES: There hasn't been a national referendum on universal pre-K education yet, but some states aren't waiting on the government. Like Florida, they're investing in their youngest residents now, betting it will result in a more secure future.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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