Youngsters need a strong start to finish ahead

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Washington, DC, February 7, 2014 | comments

There’s a growing recognition today that early education should be a national priority. As a parent and grandparent, I’d say it’s about time.

The president first made the call for a national pre-K initiative in his State of the Union address last year. Since then, several proposals have been introduced in Congress, with countless parents, think-tanks and advocacy groups joining in a wave of support.

Despite such enthusiasm, however, the vision of pre-Kindergarten for all remains just that — a vision.

Today, only 69 percent of 4-year-old American children are enrolled in early childhood education programs. That troubling statistic places the United States at the bottom (26th) in terms of access to pre-K among our advanced country peers (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development). In an increasingly competitive global economy, that means many American children start behind their international peers.

We can do better and we must. That’s why I recently introduced the EARLY Act (Expanded Access to Real Learning for our Young Act) to give all children a fair shot by expanding access to early education. Specifically, this legislation would make pre-K freely available to all families who earn a combined income of up to 400 percent of the federal poverty line. If you’re a family of four in San Diego that makes less than $94,000 per year, then your four-year old would be eligible.

Unlike nearly every other proposal, my plan purposefully includes our middle-class families. My basic view is that if you’re struggling to make ends meet, or live in an expensive city like San Diego, then you probably cannot afford a high-quality pre-K program with an average cost of around $11,000. Unfortunately, many of the existing plans today fail to recognize that reality.

To ensure quality, states that opt in under my plan would also agree to meet key standards. That means reasonable classroom sizes of no more than 20 students, teacher-to-student ratios no greater than 10 to 1 (teacher plus teacher aide), and a basic level of parental engagement. These standards clearly make sense: every child needs time and support to reach their full potential.

And let’s not forget about the pre-K teachers. They also should be paid fairly, at a salary level comparable to other elementary teachers and one that properly reflects their importance.

From success stories across our country, at both the state and local levels, we’ve learned that these benchmarks lead to higher-quality instruction. My plan would guarantee that such best practices are spread, while still leaving plenty of room for innovation. It’s important to remember that we don’t want a one-size-fits-all approach — just a smart and tested template for success.

So, what’s the catch? The truth is this isn’t just some lofty moral or educational imperative. The argument for universal prekindergarten is, without question, good science and economics.

Kids who receive high-quality pre-K are more likely to achieve success in both life and school. The research shows they’re more likely to graduate high school, earn higher pay, and live more productive lives. Starting strong, in other words, means you’re more likely to finish ahead.

What about the costs? From an economic perspective, it’s hard to find a better investment. By some estimates, every dollar spent on quality pre-K returns roughly $7 in increased productivity and public savings. Even a banker might blush at a 7-to-1 return on investment!

Finally, let’s not forget that early education is also a national security issue. When I speak to high-ranking military officials, they often speak to me about the importance of quality pre-K. That’s why the military offers an excellent early education program. They understand that kids who start behind, often stay behind — a serious issue that leaves too many unqualified to serve.

Every American child deserves access to a high-quality pre-K program, as a matter of both equal opportunity and fairness. It’s what really matters, and can truly improve the lives of our kids. So enough is enough. Let’s work together to make early education for all become just that — for all.

This editorial originally appeared in U-T San Diego.

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