By Andres Oppenheimer

When I interviewed Colombian rock star Juanes about his work for social causes, I was struck by his insistence that Latin American countries pay more attention to pre-school education. I couldn't agree more.

Juanes, who has won 17 Latin Grammy awards and has 5.1 million followers on Twitter, recently signed an agreement with the World Bank to promote artistic education among school dropouts in Colombia. He says that teaching music and other arts could be a great tool to get young people off the streets.

During the interview, Juanes told me that he first became interested in early childhood education about seven years ago, when he was studying a map of poverty in Colombia with the mayor of Medellin and realized that there were virtually no early education programs for children aged 2 to 5 in the country's rural areas.

"The first five years of children's education are critical," Juanes told me. "These are the years that determine people's cognitive development, establish one's character, and one's capacity to interact with others."

Also, pre-school education is essential to prepare children for elementary school, "because most of the children are terrified when they arrive for the first time in school," he said. That often leads to a downward spiral in which children start performing badly from day one in first grade, and end up dropping out a few years later.

Asked whether his withdrawal two years ago from the Alas Foundation -- a joint effort by Shakira, Ricky Martin, Juan Luis Guerra and other prominent artists who united in 2006 to raise money for early childhood education -- was a matter of clashing egos, he said, "It wasn't because of egos. It was too complicated, too many people involved, too ambitious." He added, "I wouldn't have any problem in trying to do it again in a collective way."

Latin American governments have long neglected pre-school education. As a result, the rich send their children to private kindergartens, while the poor start school with a disadvantage that they often can never overcome.

While Finland, a top performer in international standardized tests, spends about 1.4 percent of its gross domestic product on early childhood education, Mexico spends 0.6 percent, Chile 0.4 percent, Argentina 0.3 percent, and Colombia 0.1 percent, according to a World Bank study.

Only 65 percent of Latin American children aged 3-5 receive some kind of pre-school education either at publicly funded or private kindergartens, and in several countries -- including Honduras, Guatemala and Bolivia -- the figure is below 40 percent, a new UNESCO study says. And many children who receive pre-school education in Latin America come from families that can afford to send them to private kindergartens.

There is a growing consensus among experts that pre-school education should start even before age three. Because of malnutrition or lack of stimuli, by the time they turn three many children from poverty-stricken families are already doomed to academic failure.

"When nobody talks to a child, sings to a child, or plays with a child, that child arrives in school with a tremendous disadvantage," says Maria Caridad Araujo, an early childhood development expert with the Inter American Development Bank.

In recent years, Chile, Brazil, Peru and Colombia have begun to create publicly funded kindergartens and programs where social workers visit families in poor areas to teach parents how to raise their children. Still, while Latin American countries on average spend nearly 1 percent of their gross domestic product in their university systems, most spend less than a third of that on pre-school education, UNESCO figures show.

My opinion: I hope Juanes and other high-visibility artists will raise growing attention to Latin America's pre-school education problem, because it's a cause that is critical to help reduce the region's huge inequality, and that lacks an effective lobbying power.

Elementary schools and, to a lesser degree, high schools in the region have an extraordinary political power, because they have huge teachers unions that can paralyze the country to press for a bigger slice of the government budget. Likewise, universities are politically influential institutions with great lobbying power to get government funds. But moms and pops at home don't have political muscle to demand funds for pre-school education.

So keep it up, Juanes! And, just as important, try to resurrect a collective effort with Shakira, Ricky Martin and other superstars to put pressure on governments to pay more attention to pre-school education, because neither politicians nor teachers' unions will do it.


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