There are those who believe that children who attend school at ages 3 and 4 have an enormous head start over those who wait until kindergarten or first grade. That's why many states, including nearby West Virginia, established ''pre-K'' school programs.
The National Institute for Early Education Research cites West Virginia's pre-K program as one of the nation's best. That's one of the reasons that on our side of the border, complaints are mounting that Ohio lags far behind in emphasis on pre-K education.
In West Virginia, 58 percent of 4-year-olds and 9 percent of 3-year-olds are enrolled in pre-K programs. The numbers for Ohio are just 2 percent and 1 percent, respectively.
Good for Ohio.
A 2005 Stanford University research study reported, ''We find that attendance in preschool centers, even for short periods of time each week, hinders the rate at which young children develop social skills and display the motivation to engage in classroom tasks.''
According to a report by the Southwest Policy Institute, ''Contrary to common belief, early institutional schooling can harm children emotionally, intellectually and socially, and may later lead to greater peer dependency. ... Moreover, research indicates that most academic gains shown by normal children schooled early do not last past the second grade.''
Other studies by MIT and UC-Berkeley confirm that institutional pre-K education could have detrimental effects on a child's development.
''In the end, there is no solid research demonstrating that early academic training is superior to (or worse than) the more traditional, hands-on model of early education,'' author / researcher David Elikind wrote. ''Why take the risky step of engaging in formal academic training of the young when we already know what works?''
What works is unstructured exploration in the home, in the back yard, in a park or any setting that does not try to give 3- and 4-year-olds an early start on academic performance. That's why other states (such as West Virginia's $5,605 per student) spending more on preschool than Ohio (at $3,942 per student) is good for Ohioans. An improvement might be spending less.
Locally, the Eastern Ohio P-16 Partnership for Education is aiming for smooth transitions for every step of a Mahoning Valley child's education, from preschool through college graduation. There are certainly problems in some of the transitions - too many first-year college students, for example, need remedial classes in core subjects such as reading, writing and math. The transition from high school to college needs improved.
Too many local employers complain that they cannot find enough qualified workers. The transition from school to work needs improved.
There are also areas where socio-economics put preschool children at risk. Community programs such as P-16 intervening help in these situations.
But there should be no rush to increase state funding for preschool, or to establish universal, compulsory preschool in Ohio.