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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This week, President Bush cited improved math scores in national tests as he urged Congress to renew the No Child Left Behind Act. Competition for federal and state funds in education and with other priorities is fierce. But one program has support in some surprising places and an unexpected assortment of allies. And that's the movement to give every child a chance to attend preschool.

David Kirp is a professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley and author of "The Sandbox Investment: The Preschool Movement and Kids-First Politics." He joins us from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, where he's been giving a lecture this week.

Mr. Kirp, thanks very much for being with us.

Professor DAVID KIRP (Public Policy, University of California-Berkeley; Author, "The Sandbox Investment: The Preschool Movement and Kids-First Politics"): Thanks so much for having me, Scott.

SIMON: And first, what does the research show about preschool?

Prof. KIRP: There really is a perfect storm of research. In all the years that I've been studying social programs, I'd never seen anything like it. Whether it's the brain science work, which is just vividly dramatized early brain development, 40-year long studies of kids who've been to preschool which show astonishing continuing effects on everything from welfare to marriage stability, to reports on health, to crime, to income earnings - 25 percent higher than kids who didn't go to preschool, to the economists coming along and turning all that into the kind of analysis that shows what an incredible investment this is, just in cost benefit terms. Figures of up to 15 to 1 in terms of lifelong returns, a lot better than you do in the stock market.

SIMON: We made reference to kind of an unexpected assortment of allies that preschool education has won over the years, in part, because of the studies and practical experience. Who are some of the people you lined up is in favor?

Prof. KIRP: Well, that evidence that this is a smart investment has gotten people like Nobel Prize winner economist Jim Heckman to be a leading voice in favor of early education. Ben Bernanke in Washington has spoken about early education. And, maybe even more unusually, because of the data that shows that preschool can really affect crime rates down the road, police chiefs, district attorneys, sheriffs have formed an organization called Fight Crime: Invest in Kids, which advocates for preschool.

SIMON: There are so many factors that could potentially be responsible for children not getting into trouble with the law. What makes the police chiefs confident or you for that matter that they are correct and they're confident that preschool education has something to do with it?

Prof. KIRP: Well, I think, something is the key because you're absolutely right. There are just myriad community factors that are going to weigh in the balance. But the argument is that a good preschool education means that kids come to school not far behind their peers, as might happen otherwise and disaffected from the outset, but ready to learn.

Teachers see that and respond accordingly. They become less alienated over time, better able think for themselves so that, you know, when the temptation comes along, when somebody says, you know, come do whatever this ultimately criminal behavior is, they can actually puzzle out the consequences of that. That's the hope.

SIMON: What states and cities have move forward towards assuring pre-K education?

Prof. KIRP: Yeah, one of the amazing things about this story, I mean, the leaders in this field are the most unlikely places - Oklahoma, for example, and Georgia, Tennessee, West Virginia, Arkansas, Illinois, and now, Iowa. They are seven states that are moving clearly to the universal preschool. There are 33 other states that have preschool programs in place.

And all those numbers keep going up. People are learning from the experience of places like Oklahoma and Georgia and building in many places good programs and others, not-so-good programs.

SIMON: Well, and that raises this concern. If there's a proliferation of preschool education, how certain can we be that there are good schools that are getting created to meet the increasing need?

Prof. KIRP: I think that's the $64 question because quality is key. All the data that I was describing before that shows the enormous impact of preschool has to do with teachers with good qualifications and a real understanding of how kids develop. And the danger is that politicians who are always interested in claiming credit will seek to enroll the greatest number of students and the least costs and then claiming success move on and that's the pitfall.

It's hard to think of a social program since the great society days of such magnitude. The Wall Street Journal talks about this as the biggest education reform since the end of World War I.

SIMON: David Kirp, professor of public policy at the University of California at Berkeley. Thanks very much for being with us.

Prof. KIRP: Thank you, Scott, for having me.

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