Wednesday, February 13th, 2013
This is a guest post from Ann O’Leary, the director of the Children and Families Program at the Center for the Next Generation. The Center has launched a campaign called Too Small to Fail, a national movement to raise awareness about the state of America’s children and how the country can come together to create a stronger future for the next generation; we at Parents are one of its partners. O’Leary focused on the part of President Obama’s address that most directly impacts parents of young children: universal preschool.
Last night, President Obama began his State of the Union by harkening back to President John F. Kennedy’s declaration that it is the President’s task “to report the State of the Union – to improve it is the task of us all.” Top among the list of President Obama’s “unfinished tasks”: to make sure that our government works “to open the door of opportunity to every child across this great nation.”
President Obama’s plan to open these doors includes making “high-quality preschool available to every child in America.” If that happens, this could mean a brighter future for millions of children’s lives. Today, nearly 5 million children in the United States, or roughly 36 percent of all children ages 3 to 5, receive no form of early childhood education –- even when we know that’s one of the fundamental building blocks for success later in life. According to a RAND study: “Scientiﬁcally rigorous studies show that well-designed preschool programs serving 3- and 4-year-olds can improve school readiness and raise performance on academic achievement tests in the early elementary grades.”
Investing in preschool education also means great economic prosperity for our country. As Nobel Laureate James Heckman has outlined time and again, early childhood education gives back to society in real economic terms, with a “7 to 10 percent per year return on investment.” President Obama highlighted this research in his speech, noting, “Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than $7 later on –- by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.”
But the task of making high-quality preschool available to every child in America is not going to be easy. In 2011, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research, two-thirds of those states with state funded preschool programs made budget cuts to their preschool programs as states have felt the constraints of a weak economy. As the Center for American Progress outlined in their most recent proposal, it is going to take a partnership with federal and state investments leveraging local resources to truly create universal preschool and make sure that families’ income level is not the driving factor in deciding how much education their children can receive.
Despite the hard road to make these investments, they are critical to our future as an economic and global leader. Our competitors already have realized that investments in early learning are one of the keys to economic prosperity in the future.
In a study by the Center for the Next Generation and the Center for American progress called “The Competition that Really Matters,” we show that sustained competition from India and China are serious threats to our economic competitiveness. By 2020, China will provide 70 percent of all children with three years of early education and by 2030 China will have more college graduates than the entire American workforce.
I congratulate the President for making it clear that preschool for all should be a national priority. We need investments in early childhood education now; not only to nourish growing minds, but to set the foundations of a more efficient –- and internationally competitive –- economy for generations to come.
Photo: kindergarten, preschool classroom via Shutterstock.