The New York Times recently reported that the problem with education performance in America today is one of inequity of opportunity more than a failure of our educational institutions.
The problem though, begins much earlier than college. It starts even before a child attends their first day of school. Children start kindergarten at different levels of preparedness. Children from wealthier families have numerous advantages in their environment that poorer children never experience. That’s one of the reasons preschool is important. It helps ensure all children are more ready to excel in kindergarten and beyond.
According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Kids Count Data Book, “two out of three children don’t attend preschool, 27 percent live in poverty and three-quarters of fourth-graders aren’t proficient in reading. In fact, Arizona ranks 47th overall in the annual survey, moving down a notch from last year. Bruce Liggett, executive director of the Arizona Child Care Association and a former state child-care program administrator said: “People think about day care as just someplace where a child goes. They don’t understand that a child is learning every waking moment and that the quality of those experiences affects their development.”
Although 39 other states do, Arizona no longer funds any kind of early-childhood education and four years ago, lawmakers imposed a waiting list for the state’s child-care subsidy program. Since that time, an estimated 33,000 eligible children have been denied subsidies and in 2010, legislators eliminated a $20 million early-childhood block grant in order to balance the state budget. The following year, they eliminated funding for a subsidy program for low-income working parents.[i]
This is important because it’s not just the children who sometimes need help catching up. Arizona’s First Things First program is one of those programs designed to serve not only the child, but the entire family, and their communities as well. Passed by a landslide in November 2006, and funded through a tobacco tax, Proposition 203 was a citizen’s initiative designed to fund quality early childhood development and health. It provided $10 million in matching funds so Arizona could continue to get federal child care dollars which provided a head start seat for 40% of those eligible. First Things First ensued and has been a critical partner in creating a family-centered, comprehensive, collaborative and high-quality early childhood system that supports the development, health and early education of all Arizona’s children birth through age five. Unfortunately, the recent sequester cut $9.5 million from Arizona child-care and preschools.[ii]
Investment in early education for disadvantaged children from birth to age 5 is especially helpful in reducing the achievement gap, the need for special education, increases the likelihood of healthier lifestyles, lowers the crime rate, and reduces overall social costs. In fact, every dollar invested in high-quality early childhood education produces a 7 to 10 percent per annum return on investment. Policies that provide early childhood educational resources to the most disadvantaged children produce greater social and economic equity. We can create a more level and playing field by smart investments in effective education. “Historically, broad educational gains have been the biggest driver of American economic success; hence the economist’s rule of thumb that an increase of one year in a country’s average schooling level corresponds to an increase of 3 to 4 percent in long-term economic growth.”[iii]
It all boils down to this – we can pay now or we can pay later. We can invest early to prevent achievement gaps, or we can fix disparities later when it is harder to do and costs us more. It’s not just about cost though. Investing early lets us be proactive to shape our destiny. Investing later makes us react to missed opportunities. I know I’d rather be “in control” than “be controlled”.