With Our Future on the Line, the Time to Invest in Kids Is Now

Our nation's economic future is uncertain; we face increasingly aggressive global competition; lagging academic achievement is dragging down economic output; and almost two-thirds of Americans think our nation is on the wrong track.

We know the bad news all too well. The good news is that America has been at these kinds of perilous moments in our past and we did what it took to emerge more prosperous and secure than before. Indeed, one of our defining qualities throughout history hasn't been an ability to avoid great national challenges, but to overcome them when they confronted us.

Unfortunately, it doesn't appear that we're tackling today's economic and global competitive challenges with the same levels of determination and investment.

The State of Preschool 2011: State Preschool Yearbook, a new report from Rutgers University's National Institute for Early Education Research, released this week, reveals that total spending on early childhood education by all 50 states and the District of Columbia decreased nearly $60 million from 2010 to 2011, capping a ten-year decline of 15 percent during the past decade.

This may not be a cause of alarm to Americans whose only eye on the future is through the lens of GDP and unemployment statistics. But, in fact, our investment in early education is perhaps the most important economic indicator of them of all.

A quality early childhood education is the path to a child's later academic success, increased domestic economic output, improved health and lower obesity rates, and a cessation of the poverty crisis that's gripping a record 46 million Americans, including nearly one in four kids.

The new Rutgers study found that 28 percent of all 4-year-olds and 4 percent of 3-year- olds were served by state preschool programs and, even though enrollment may be increasing, quality may be decreasing. That points to the need for improved accountability and innovative models, like the public-private partnerships Save the Children runs across 15 states, serving 5,500 infants, toddlers, and preschoolers.

In fact, two states in which we've heavily invested -- Kentucky and West Virginia, with the bipartisan support of governors and legislators -- scored at the top of the Rutgers report. And in states like Mississippi that have no state preschool programs, we are helping to fill the gap with programs serving 400 children.

Ultimately, our ability to close this gap and make a truly meaningful investment in early childhood education can't be left to the states or private organizations alone. It's a shared responsibility.

President Obama recently made a solid new early education investment with $500 million directed toward nine states. And corporate America is playing a role, too, with companies like Procter & Gamble, Mattel and many others supporting early childhood programs.

Getting the job done and ensuring quality early education for every American kid would be an investment on the order of buying Apple stock in 2003 when it was at $6.56 a share. Indeed, the Brookings Institute says that a meaningful investment in early childhood education could add $2 trillion to our national GDP in a generation.

The Rutgers preschool study is both a warning sign and a call to action. If we act, America can to get in on the ground floor of a great future.

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