Early Childhood Education Is at Risk

We are currently in the midst of a series of budget battles, and funding for vital early childhood education programs is at risk of being cut or eliminated entirely.

Under the current federal budget resolution, Head Start would lose 16,000 classrooms nationwide, leaving 218,220 children without the benefits of its early childhood development program. The allocation for Reading is Fundamental would be totally eliminated, and the budget of the Fund for Improvement of Education, which supports programs like Reach Out and Read, would be cut from $125 million to $37 million.

These cuts are nothing short of Draconian and would be devastating for millions of children in our country. The consequences of inadequate early education would cripple them academically and professionally, and the effects would be felt for the rest of their lives. The impact on society -- indeed, on our country's future -- would be profound and catastrophic.

As a literacy educator and advocate, I have seen children's lives transformed by early childhood education programs and by what families together can learn from them about reading in the home. I can tell in a matter of minutes when I visit in a kindergarten classroom in which children have had prior access to early childhood literacy interventions and exposure to books in the home and which ones have not.

To be sure, early childhood education programs are the best means of prevention against an ever-increasing high school drop-out rate. They insure that every student begins schooling poised to learn and succeed. Already, more than 7,000 students drop out of high school every day. We simply cannot afford for this number to go up if we truly want to ensure our nation's socio-economic health.

In a speech earlier this month, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said, "The payoffs of early childhood programs can be especially high. For instance, preschool programs for disadvantaged children have been shown to increase high school graduation rates. Because high school graduates have higher earnings, pay more taxes, and are less likely to use public health programs, investing in such programs can pay off even from the narrow perspective of state budgets; of course, the returns to the overall economy and to the individuals themselves are much greater."

Bernanke could not have been more on point. Without such programs, children in low-income households would come to kindergarten already far behind their peers: A recent report by the Packard and MacArthur Foundations found that the average child growing up in a middle class family has been exposed to 1,000 to 1,700 hours of one-on-one picture book reading. The average child growing up in a low-income family, in contrast, has only been exposed to 25 hours of such opportunities. And, a 2006 study by Susan Neuman found that in low-income neighborhoods, there is only one book per 300 children.

Children cannot afford to wait until kindergarten to be introduced to books and reading. Through programs like Head Start, they are able to build early reading and math skills. Then, they are poised to enter school with confidence and curiosity, rather than frustration and shame. We cannot put a child's learning on hold. We want to be working in tandem with her intellectual and psychological development, not racing furiously to catch up before it is too late. In a world completely dependent on -- and inspired by -- the written word, read and shared online, we must help children to become fluent and thriving readers and writers. Otherwise, we risk creating a population isolated from work opportunities, deprived of better health outcomes that are directly linked to access to education, and alienated from the global discourse.

Moreover, the benefits of passing the proposed early childhood education cuts is in no way commensurate to their dire costs to children. In fact, such budget cuts have no significant deficit reduction value. I am aware that the following is a familiar statement, but it bears repeating: the base budget of the Department of Defense for the 2010 fiscal year was $533.8 billion. Compare that to the cost required to run Reading is Fundamental, which has a budget of $24.8 million dollars, and the ratio is about 1:21,524. Altogether, early childhood learning programs are far less than one-hundredth of our military budget, and cutting their funding will do effectively nothing to change our country's debt status.

In a recent speech protesting the cuts, Illinois Senator Dick Durbin said, "We have one chance with a child to do it right. If we miss that opportunity, their lives change forever. Our lives change forever." I urge all our elected leaders to heed these words, to do it right by protecting our nation's early childhood education programs. If we eliminate them, we will fail our children, and we will fail our country in ways that are irreparable and unforgivable.