Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin has appointed a task force to look into the physical and intellectual well-being of West Virginia children from birth to 5 years of age. One concern into which it ought to look might be termed "dueling preschools."
Tomblin has asked members of the Early Childhood Planning Task Force to give him a report by the end of this year. Presumably, the nine-member panel will recommend changes to help young Mountain State residents.
Task force members have a very full agenda. The governor wants them to investigate health concerns for young children, as well as expectant mothers. But he also wants ideas on "education readiness."
Not so many years ago, it was thought first grade was early enough to introduce children to school. We know differently now; the importance of educating children before they enter kindergarten is accepted.
West Virginia already has a good preschool program, operated by county school systems. More than 15,200 children ages 3-4 participated in it last year, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. The NIEER says the Mountain State program meets eight of its 10 benchmarks for quality.
But many children do not participate. Only about 9 percent of 3-year-olds are enrolled in the state preschool program. About 61 percent of 4-year-olds take part.
Not all of the remainder simply stay at home, however. Fifteen percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled in the federal Head Start program instead of the state's pre-K initiative. For 3-year-olds, slightly more go to Head Start than to the state classes.
Two different, competing preschool programs are being supported by taxpayers in our state. That may not make sense.
While Head Start had an excellent reputation for many years, some researchers now say that no longer can be taken for granted.
An important job for the governor's task force is comparing the quality of public-school programs for 3- and 4-year-old children to those offered by Head Start. If both are good, allowing the two to continue competing may be desirable - providing there is some uniformity in their methods of preparing children to enter kindergarten.
But if Head Start has become no more than a glorified babysitting service, as some critics charge, pressure should be put on federal authorities to improve it - or simply disband it in West Virginia and redirect federal funding to the state program.