I mostly agree with Joe Nocera’s column that there are limits to school reform. One problem is that we don’t have the best metrics on what works in education, and we may never be able to get to that point. It’s exceedingly difficult to isolate all the competing forces – teacher quality, student environment, engagement of parents, socioeconomic status, class size, the rigors of testing – to determine exactly which piece improves student performance.

But the experts have found one area extremely promising – early childhood education. A child that gets exposed to learning at an early age has a dramatic advantage over one that doesn’t. While the data continues to come in, you’d think that an Administration dedicated to use that data could focus on the clearest predictor of student performance and encourage as much early childhood education as possible.

The Obama Administration has tried to encourage early childhood ed, but not nearly to the degree of their “Race to the Top” reforms, which stress merit pay and charter schools and turnarounds for failing classrooms. And it turns out that lack of emphasis has an impact:

Funding for early-childhood education declined between 2009 and 2010, even as the Obama administration urged states to increase pre-kindergarten programs for 3- and 4-year-olds, according to a study released Tuesday.

Total state funding for such programs declined by $30 million nationwide as states scrambled to make up for budget shortfalls, according to the the National Institute for Early Education Research, based at Rutgers University Graduate School of Education. Meanwhile, state funding for K-12 education increased slightly.

“Overall, state cuts to pre-K transformed the recession into a depression for many young children,” the report said.

Only 26% of 4 year-olds were enrolled in pre-K in 2010. In the 2008 campaign, Obama talked about universal pre-K. And this is BEFORE federal stimulus money for education runs out.

Some of this was inevitable given state budget woes. But the White House had no problem holding back billions of dollars to force a series of education reforms, which was a fairly successful enterprise as most states made the changes. And an early childhood education mandate didn’t make that list. Even the EduJobs bill from last year, which gave another $16 billion or so to states to use on their schools, didn’t earmark any funds for early childhood ed.

This is a White House consumed with making reforms for education. Here we have the most important predictor of future success, and they know it. But instead of the actions taken on behalf of charters and merit pay, they only gave advice about early childhood ed. And that advice was not heeded.

So when corporate financiers want more charters and the ability to dictate pay schedules by busting up teacher’s unions, that becomes a priority. When the only thing that we know beyond a shadow of a doubt works in education is getting starved of funding, that becomes something for Arne Duncan to furrow his brow about. But there’s no real action taken.

I will add that this has been rectified somewhat. Early childhood ed has been included in Race to the Top for the 2011 continuing resolution. That took two years, and as we can see, the lost time was crucial.