This year, Congress is seeking to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), and as a part of that goal create equity of opportunity, starting with the country’s youngest children. A document published by the US Department of Education this month, entitled A Matter of Equity: Preschool in America, spells out the issues at hand that must be addressed in order to offer quality early childhood education to families in every geographic area, of every race, and of every socioeconomic level.
US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan begins the outline of how this will be done:
“I believe that every single child deserves the opportunity for a strong start in life through high-quality preschool, and expanding those opportunities must be part of ESEA [the Elementary and Secondary Education Act].”
If school readiness gaps between disadvantaged children and their more advantaged peers is not closed, the country will be unable to ensure that all children graduate from high school prepared to succeed in college, careers, and life, says the Department.
Research suggests, according to the Department, that children who participate in high-quality preschool programs have better health, social-emotional, and cognitive outcomes than children who do not have that privilege. Studies cited by the Department have also shown that for every $1 spent on expanding early learning opportunities – including high-quality preschool – there is a return on the investment of $8.60.
Still, more than 2.5 million four-year-old children do not have access to publicly funded preschool programs. And without access to quality preschool programs, African-American and Latino children, and children from low-income families are much more likely to be ill-prepared to start kindergarten than their fellow classmates.
In 2014, 28 states increased their investments, amounting to more than $1 billion in new state resources dedicated to early education. Seventeen of these states were led by Republican governors and 11 were led by Democratic governors. Ten states – California, South Carolina, Michigan, Rhode Island, Ohio, Alabama, New Mexico, Washington, Missouri, and Nebraska – increased funding by more than 20 percent.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Head Start program has improved the quality of its early learning programs and has expanded the number of children served. Since 2008, funding for Head Start, as well as Early Head Start, has expanded. A new addition to the Head Start program is the Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships that bring high-quality early learning opportunities to more children by linking child care and Early Head Start programs. The new budget aims at assuring that Head Start children are served in full-day, full-year programs that have a greater impact.
State designed efforts to implement an integrated system of high quality early learning programs and services in twenty states are supported by the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services’ Early Learning Challenge Program. Only 20 states received funding for the program because of the unavailability of funding and other factors.
States that have implemented the early phases of the Preschool Development Grants and the quality initiatives of the Early Learning Challenge Grants are still in the maturation stage. The government thinks it can see, however, what investments in these two programs can achieve. In the past several years, many groups of education, business, law enforcement, military, child advocacy, and faith-based leaders have joined to support the growth of high-quality preschool programs. This kind of support means that more students will graduate from high school, go to college, or join the armed or public services, and less will be entering the justice system.
The 2016 budget requests funding to continue grants for currently involved states, as well as more funding to expand grants to more states, the Bureau of Indian Education, tribal educational agencies, territories, and the Outlying Areas.
Corporate and philanthropic leaders pledged more than $330 million in new actions at the White House Early Education Summit in December 2014 to expand the reach and enhance the quality of early education for thousands of additional students.
“Early childhood development is the compelling economic, social, and moral issue of our time,” former Procter & Gamble CEO John Pepper explains. “It helps provide all children with the opportunities they deserve to develop their natural abilities. It is also the most effective way to build the workforce … we need. Investing in young children’s healthy development is a financial and social imperative for any country.”
During the last Congressional session, members supported bipartisan legislation for the Strong Start for America’s Children Act. This measure will expand access to high-quality preschool for every child from low- and moderate-income families. If passed, the proposal will support meaningful implementation of high-quality preschool programs aligned with our country’s elementary and secondary school systems.
By making a significant investment in preschool a key component of ESEA, we can help America live up to its highest ideals, as a place with real equity of opportunity. Congress has a chance to honor and extend the civil rights legacy of our education law by providing all children – no matter where they live or how much money their parents earn – an equal opportunity to begin school ready to succeed.