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Early childhood education receives a strong endorsement in a landmark study released Thursday that shows low-income children who attended a high-quality preschool were better off in most ways at age 40.

The children were more likely to be high school graduates, to be employed and had higher incomes than a comparison group that did not attend preschool. They also were less likely to have committed crimes.

"The findings are dramatic, but also a signal to policy-makers at the federal and state level that early education pays off handsomely," said Larry Schweinhart, president of High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, which conducted the Perry Preschool Study.

Utah is one of 10 states that do not fund prekindergarten initiatives. The state also has one of the lowest percentages of 3- to 5-year-olds - 53.3 percent, compared with a national average of 61.4 percent - enrolled in preschool, according to Census 2000 data.

Utah relies solely on $18 million in federal funds to run 10 Head Start programs, which serve around 5,400 low-income and academically at-risk children, rather than supplementing the grants as many states do.

"Utah needs to recognize it is a cost-saving measure and that we will see savings if we invest more now in young children," said Marissa Diener, an associate professor in the University of Utah's Department of Family and Consumer Studies.

The Perry Preschool Study began in 1962 with 123 African-American children, then 3 and 4, in Ypsilanti, Mich., who were deemed at high risk of school failure. Researchers randomly assigned 58 children to the high-quality preschool program, while the rest received no intervention.

All of the program's teachers had bachelor's degrees and worked with small groups of students - a ratio of one teacher per eight children. The children attended the program for 2 1/2 hours a day, five days a week, for two years. Teachers also visited their homes once a week.

The researchers met with the children yearly until they were 11 and then again at ages 14, 15, 19, 27 and 40.

They found that 65 percent of the children in the program graduated from a regular high school, compared with 45 percent in the comparison group. The preschool group also performed better through the years on intellectual and language tests, school achievement tests and literacy tests.

At age 40, researchers found that 70 percent of the men who participated in the preschool program were employed, compared with 50 percent of the males from the other group. Annual earnings were about $5,000 higher for the preschool group, and more of them owned cars and homes.

The children who did not participate in the preschool were four times more likely to be arrested for drug offenses, to be habitual criminals and to have committed multiple violent felonies.

"Among the strongest weapons to fight crime are programs that give children the right start in life," said Albert N!jera, police chief in Sacramento, Calif., who participated in a teleconference on the study.

The nonprofit foundation said society has received a return of $17 for every $1 invested in the preschool program in taxes paid and crime, social service and education savings - one of the most impressive ratios ever found, said Matt Hennessee, chairman of the High/Scope board of directors.

"We should provide early, high-quality child care to every citizen because it makes for a better society," said Hennessee. "It's not just good policy, but good politics."

Schweinhart said that even the most intensive aspect of the Perry school - weekly home visits with parents - can be simulated if programs focus on getting parents heavily involved at school through group and informal meetings.

But he acknowledged that providing more access to and increasing quality of programs such as Head Start, whose budget the Bush administration has proposed be cut by $177 million, remain challenges.

Conservative groups, such as The Heritage Foundation, say taxpayers already shell out $25 billion a year for state and federal early childhood programs despite their unproven track records.

In Utah, efforts to fund preschool programs routinely meet opposition from two camps: conservatives who see such efforts as meddling in family affairs and education officials who view the proposals as potentially draining precious dollars from an already underfunded system.

"They haven't bought the argument that you would save dollars by investing earlier," said Cheryl Wright, associate professor and director of the Child and Family Development Center at the U.

And that, she says, is "shortsighted."

"If you start early enough, you can alleviate some of the most costly interventions," Wright said. "It is a very, very wise early investment that pays off tenfold not only in the school system but the family support system, our juvenile delinquency system, our prisons."