AFT - American Federation of Teachers

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What Matters Most

by AFT President Randi Weingarten

Investing in a Strong Start
NY Times, May 15, 2011

If high-quality early childhood education were a stock or commodity, investors would be racing to invest in these programs that routinely yield a high rate of return. Indeed, savvy policymakers and education leaders have invested in “futures,” so to speak, by devoting funds to programs aimed at children between the ages of 3 and 5, before they start elementary school. But the ongoing economic downturn has squeezed the ability of local districts and states to support many programs that benefit young children. Now, however, we have a rare opportunity to devote much-needed federal funds to greatly expand access to high-quality preschool and other early learning programs.

Decades of experience and evidence clearly show that high-quality early childhood programs can produce significant educational and economic benefits. While such programs benefit all children, they offer a potent opportunity to level the playing field for disadvantaged children in particular—helping close the school-readiness gap and the social-skills gap, and providing a powerful vehicle to help break the cycle of poverty.

The achievement gap between children born in poverty and those of adequate means begins as early as 9 months old. By the time disadvantaged children enter elementary school, the gap often has grown so large that they begin their elementary education with a need to catch up. Too often, that gap is never closed.

Since there is such a doable way to help children keep up, America must stop playing catch-up. High-quality early learning programs lead to improved school readiness, greater literacy, decreased need for special education services, increased grade retention and high school graduation rates, and higher test scores.

These programs are also cost-effective—yielding tangible economic benefits both to the children who enroll in such programs and to society. Conclusive research attests to this, including decades of research on the much-heralded Perry Preschool program in Ypsilanti, Mich., which shows that the overall return on the investment of sending a child to the preschool was 183 percent.

At-risk children who attend high-quality early learning programs have been shown to have increased employment and higher lifetime earnings, as well as reduced incarceration and less need for social welfare programs.

Yet, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research, total state funding for prekindergarten fell during the 2009-2010 school year (the first decrease since NIEER has collected such data), and state per-child spending was about $700 below 2001-2002 levels. The recession has ravaged funding for these programs just as the number of children eligible for them has increased because, as NIEER reports, family income often determines eligibility.

So it was welcome news when Congress recently agreed to provide $700 million in additional funding for the federal Race to the Top program that is intended—although not explicitly mandated—to improve early education and childcare programs for disadvantaged infants, toddlers and preschool-aged children. The decision about how much of that $700 million actually will be used to increase access to early childhood programs lies with the U.S. Secretary of Education. No doubt countless parents, educators and cash-strapped states would share my hope that the decision will be to use ALL of it to give as many children as possible access to an early start on success. Even this $700 million investment would still not be enough to extend vital early learning services to all eligible children, but it would be a significant down payment toward that goal.

Whether one views this issue through an educational or an economic prism, it makes sense to get it right from the start. One of the most effective ways to improve educational and economic outcomes for all children—particularly disadvantaged children—is to provide high-quality early learning experiences that ensure a successful and seamless transition to elementary and secondary school, and beyond.

We often hear about the need to prepare our children for the knowledge economy and for life as accomplished adults and productive citizens. This is a noble priority, but it is no more than empty rhetoric unless we take the tangible steps we know will prepare kids—and that starts with early learning.