Is your child ready to start school? For parents and children trying hard to enjoy at least a fewweeks more of downtime before beginning back to school shopping and school yearroutines all over again, the answer is probably a resounding not yet! But even when September arrives,for millions of American children the answer will still be no. Right now, far too many of our youngest children aren’tprepared to start school ready to learn and succeed this year or any year. Althoughsome may consider me a broken record, I’ll keep playing it until we hear, getit, and act. The greatest threat to America’s economic, military, and national securitycomes from no foreign enemy but from our failure to invest in healthy andeducated children regardless of their lottery of birth.
Earlychildhood development and learning starting at birth—in fact before birth withprenatal care and parent preparation—and continuing throughout the toddler andpreschool years and through kindergarten(not just to) is critical to getting all children ready for school. Butresearch shows only 48 percent of poor children are ready to learn at age fivecompared to 75 percent of children from families with moderate and highincomes. Fewer than half of all four-year-olds are enrolled in public pre-Kprograms, special education, or Head Start programs, and the percentage inquality programs is lower. Our current failure to invest in and provide qualityearly childhood experiences for all children has huge long term consequencesfor all of us and for America’s future. Congress is off chasing the wrongdeficit. America’s greatest deficit is our human capital deficit—our childinvestment deficit.
Themajority of public school students of all races—and more than three quarters ofBlack and Hispanic public school students—cannot read or do math at grade levelin the fourth and eighth grades. A child drops out of public high school every eightseconds and many who graduate from high school are not college and career ready.In a rapidly globalizing world, underprepared American students are fallingbehind. When we let hundreds of thousands of children drop out of schoolannually, it is an enormous foregone productivity loss to our nation. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, ifthe students who dropped out of the class of 2011 had graduated, the nation’seconomy would likely have benefitted from nearly $154 billion in additionalincome over the course of their lifetimes. Seventy-five percentof 17- to 24-year-olds are not eligible for military service because of poorliteracy levels, health-related problems, and prior criminal records.
Everybodyneeds to stop playing politics with the lives of our children and realize weare all in the same boat to the future, and that a majority of children in theboat by 2019—and already a majority of our babies—will be children of color, whoare disproportionately poor. We need to wake up and make sure these children areeducated and prepared to read and lead us.
Investingin early childhood development and learning initiatives must be an all-Americangoal – Republicans, Democrats, and Independents alike – and the initiativesmust include the level of support to make a real difference. We must rejectthose who play personal, partisan, and ideological politics with our children--America’snational and economic security. And we must reject those who waste preciouschild lives and public resources by only investing in remediation andincarceration and neglecting prevention and preparation.
TheAdministration’s proposed $75 billion investment in mandatory funds for qualitypre-K over ten years, with additional investments in quality home visiting,child care, Early Head Start, and Head Start, is a huge opportunity tohighlight the critical role these early years play in all our children’ssuccess in school and in life. It’s long past time to make quality earlychildhood development and learning a cornerstone of our nation’s policy andinvestment agenda.
Qualityearly childhood investments from birth through age five, in home visiting,child care, Early Head Start, Head Start, pre-K and full-day kindergarten, willyield returns in children’s social, emotional, and cognitive development and intheir ability to start school ready to learn, move on to college and careers,and become our future workforce. Dr. James Heckman and other respectedeconomists including Federal Reserve Board Chairman Bernanke show investmentsin quality early childhood education for our most disadvantaged children aresound economic policy and yield higher graduation rates, earnings, and taxrevenues while reducing future involvement in the criminal justice system. Republicanand Democratic governors alike have seen firsthand the benefits of high qualityprograms.
It’stime for broad bipartisan support for critically important investments in youngchildren. And we must get this right for children: not for test makers, not foradult interests, but for children—especiallythe poorest children. Any final early childhood initiative must ensure childrenare kept front and center as policies are being drafted and money is beinginvested. We need to make sure children living in the poorest areas and thosewith greatest needs will truly benefit fromthe new investments, and that states will truly be held accountable forproviding quality care to children. Family support and comprehensive services,hallmarks of successful Early Head Start and Head Start Programs, must be partof the new quality early childhood continuum. Children do not come in pieces.
Wemust be able to measure how well children are doing by requiring states to achievequality benchmarks within a defined period and document the progress childrenmake. These new investments must help children birth through five and be aligned with a comprehensive continuum of carethrough all the early grades to provide a strong foundation for high schoolcompletion. Silos among those who serve children must be broken down as we cometogether to prepare our young and nation for the future. A multi-servicedelivery system that engages community partners must be a hallmark of the newearly childhood continuum. Adult special interests must take a back seat tochildren’s opportunity to live and learn and thrive and be prepared for thefuture.
Getting a child readyfor school involves much more than choosing a new backpack and putting her onthe right bus. It requires her having a quality early childhood from birththrough age five that promotes development and learning. Everything we standfor as Americans depends on it.