Poverty is rising among young children and many tend to come from single-parent homes and households where little English is spoken, according to a government study.
The General Accounting Office study, released Thursday, underscores the difficulty in expanding preschool programs for an increasingly diverse and disadvantaged population."The increase in the number, diversity and needs of disadvantaged preschool-age children poses potential obstacles to achieving the first national education goal that all children be ready for school by the year 2000," said GAO, the congressional watchdog agency.
The study found that while the number of preschool children grew by 16 percent during the 1980s, the number of poor preschoolers increased by 28 percent, from 1.1 million to 1.4 million.
By 1990, one of every five preschool-age children was from a family with income below the poverty level. By comparison, 13 percent of elderly people and 9 percent of adults age 25 to 64 were poor.
GAO said today's low-income preschoolers are more likely than non-poor children to be immigrants or living in households where teenage and adult members of the family don't speak English very well. They also tend to have parents who don't work or haven't finished high school.
And only a third of these low-income 3- and 4-year-olds attended preschool in 1990, compared with 45 percent of the non-poor preschoolers and 60 percent of children from families with incomes over $63,370.
"Despite all of our best efforts, preschoolers are slipping through the cracks and not learning critical skills," said Sen. Christopher Dodd, chairman of the Senate Labor subcommittee on children and families, who released the GAO study.
Dodd, D-Conn., said it does not bode well for meeting the goal of sending every child to school ready to learn.
In 1990, President Bush and the nation's governors expressed a commitment to preschool programs for all disadvantaged children. The first of the National Education Goals states that by the year 2000, all children will start school ready to learn and that all disadvantaged children will have access to preschool programs.
Since then, President Clinton has said he wants to turn Head Start into a full-day and year-round program and has asked Congress to pump an additional $1.4 billion into the preschool program next year and an additional $14 billion over the next five years.
The House, however, voted recently to increase Head Start spending by $500 million in 1994, bringing its budget to nearly $3.3 billion.
"Such a growing number of disadvantaged children could strain the existing capacity of preschool programs," GAO said.
"To meet the goal, federal, state and local governments will need to develop ways to serve disadvantaged children."