Rumors have been swirling that President Obama would address early childhood education in State of the Union speech, but there was still a thrill for early education advocates in hearing the President’s words rings out from the podium tonight. The full details of his early education plan will be revealed in coming days but inclusion in the State of the Union makes clear the White House has elevated early learning to a national priority. The emphasis on return on investment was particularly gratifying as NIEER’s Steven Barnett, working with Larry Schweinhart and others on David Weikart’s Perry Preschool study, noted the high returns to preschool with the $7 returned to $1 invested figure first reported 20 years ago.
In human terms, it is difficult to overstate the benefits of high-quality early education programs. Children who are enrolled in these programs are better prepared for school, which is particularly important at a time when 40 percent of kindergarteners are not ready to be in the classroom. Schools benefit from students coming into class academically and socially prepared to learn, resulting in reduction in grade retention and special education services. Families are better able to work when they know their children are in a safe and educational environment while benefiting from socializing with children their own age. Millions more Americans who may not even have preschool-age children benefit from long-term societal benefits — pre-K has been found to reduce participants’ future reliance on welfare and likeliness of being imprisoned, not to mention the fact that any of the 3-year-olds playing doctor in the dress-up corner today could be your surgeon twenty years from now. Opponents may argue that the proposal shared tonight could come with a considerable price tag. But $100 million invested in early education over the next decade could return as much as $1 trillion in benefits to the nation. And that is present value – or the equivalent value today – not a simple sum of benefits over time, which is much larger. That is an investment well worth making.
For too long, high-quality early education has been out of reach for most low- and middle-income Americans. As we noted last week, “Among children from low-income families, more than 1 in 3 attends no preschool program at age 4 and most do not attend at age 3. For those lucky enough to attend a state-funded program, real spending per child declined during the Great Recession, sapping quality. Children in higher income families have better access to programs, but those are not necessarily of high quality.” The President’s plan to seeks to ensure that all 4-year-olds can access quality programs, which will put children on an early path to success. Early childhood education can help all children at risk of school failure and close much of the achievement gap that plagues American education. This proposal improves opportunity for everyone, offering a hand up to lower and middle-income families that will help them reach the American dream.
Like all education programs, this new early education plan will work only with a strong commitment to quality. This means ensuring that all classrooms have highly qualified teachers, both through initial preparation and ongoing professional development. And, preschool educators must be paid on the same scale as K-12 teachers. Until all early educators are valued as highly as their higher grade counterparts, quality will be difficult to ensure. Some states have achieved more on this front than others, and it is hoped this new plan will flexibly help all states bring their current systems up to high quality, including teacher qualifications, while expanding access. States like Alabama, with high quality but little access, have very different assistance needs than states like Florida, with lots of children enrolled but low quality standards.
Moving this proposal from Capitol Hill into classrooms will require that Congress move beyond partisan politics in the interest of America’s children. This proposal is in line with the traditional role of the federal government in education: ensuring that the most disadvantaged students and states are given an equal opportunity. If there is any doubt that states are interested in pursuing these collaborative partnerships with the federal government, consider that thirty-five states and the District of Columbia applied for Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge funds in 2011. In the end, pre-K is not a “red” or “blue” issue, a fact highlighted by the Obama administration’s plan to visit an early learning center in Georgia, a red state with a historically strong, large-scale program that has been embraced by politicians and parents alike. Oklahoma is a another leader in state-funded early childhood education, and early educator Susan Bumgardner, a 2013 nominee for Oklahoma City Public Schools Teacher of the Year award, was a special guest of the first family this evening. Early education efforts in the United States present a bipartisan state commitment to doing what is best for the nation’s children. Federal leaders should follow in the footsteps of the folks back home.
We applaud President Obama for introducing a vision tonight of what early education can do for millions of the nation’s children and families. In the coming days and weeks, we will be eagerly following the details of this proposal, hoping to see a pre-K plan move through Congress that supports high-quality early education for families and states most in need of expanded opportunities. America’s children deserve nothing less.
– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER
– W. Steven Barnett, Director, NIEER
– Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER