Early Learning Needs to Be National Priority

It is a typical weekday in Camden, New Jersey - a city that is recognized as one of the poorest and most dangerous cities in the country.

On this day, a group of preschoolers from the inner city is engaged in an interactive lesson on sizes and shapes inside the Early Learning Research Academy (ELRA).

It is just this kind of early learning that could make all the difference for these vulnerable little ones as they grow to maturity. The day-in, day-out focus on their mental, physical and social health and development means better life outcomes for them and a more capable and resilient workforce for America.

But one of the most daunting challenges about early learning in this country is a lack of public funding for teaching children from birth to 3 years of age.

While many families must dig deep in their pockets to pay for their children's preschool, the families of children from low-income backgrounds have no pockets to dig in. Forty-nine percent of American children under the age of three -- 5.6 million -- live in low-income households, while 48 percent of children 3 through 5 years old -- 5.9 million -- live in low-income households.

Without quality early-childhood education and affiliated services, this is a lost generation waiting to happen. America cannot afford to lose half of its future taxpayers, householders, parents and workers.

President Obama made dramatic preschool expansion a priority for the U.S. Department of Education in the Administration's second term. The topic was raised by the President in his 2013 State of the Union address.

"We need to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America," the President said during that State of the Union. "Let's do what works, and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let's give our kids that chance."

I applauded the President's efforts 21 months ago, and wait enthusiastically for his vision to come to fruition. Much is at stake.

The ELRA in Camden is an example of the kind of facility that would work well in other low-income environments. A model Early Learning facility at Rutgers University, Camden, it serves children from infancy through 4 years old, and gives local teachers, children, college students and parents a place to learn the importance of quality early learning.

Yet, despite the benefits, state funding per child for preschool programs has declined over the last decade, according to data published by the National Institute for Early Education Research. In the most recent year for which statistics are available, 9,000 fewer 4-year-olds participated in publicly-funded preschool.

That number needs to rise. And soon.

This is why the President's plan makes sense.

The administration's proposal is a great promise of new investments that will establish a continuum of learning for children from birth through 5 years old.

Major elements include:

• Funding to Pay For High-Quality Preschool for Every Child: A new cost-sharing partnership with all 50 states will extend federal funds and expand public preschool to reach all low- and moderate-income 4-year-olds from families whose incomes are at or below 200 percent of the poverty line. We in Camden could be doing more if this element of the plan was implemented.

• Growing the Supply of Effective Early Learning Opportunities for Young Children: A new Early Head Start-Child Care partnership will support communities and child care providers that can meet high standards of quality for infants and toddlers. We have been able to partner with Bright Horizon to deliver quality of teaching and learning needed for these youngsters, but we need additional support.

• Expanding Evidence-Based, Voluntary Home Visiting: Voluntary home visiting programs allow nurses, social workers, and other professionals to connect families to services and educational support that can improve a child's health, development, and ability to learn. The President's plan extends these important programs to reach additional families in need. In Camden, ELRA visits its families every day despite the lack of federal funding. We receive small contributions from the Morgan Foundation and subsidies from the state, but the money doesn't go far enough.

Our Early Learning Research Academy is the first link in LEAP Academy's pipeline from birth to college.

This past year, LEAP Academy graduated our first class of pre-schoolers from LEAP High School. One hundred percent graduated, and went on to colleges such as Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, and Rutgers University, among others.

We see great futures for our former pre-schoolers who are now starting college. Quality early childhood education could make the difference for vulnerable infants, toddlers and preschoolers across the country. But funding early childhood education nationwide takes a sense of urgency and political will.