Equity Begins With Effective Early Childhood Education

“In our community, the passion for early childhood education is incredible,” says kindergarten teacher Laura Hamilton. Hamilton teaches at Northwoods Fine Arts Academy, a K-2 school in Sand Springs, a close-knit town in Oklahoma about 8 miles west of Tulsa. About 90 percent of Northwood’s students are eligible for free-or reduced price meals. Fortunately, many of them enter kindergarten after attending the Sand Springs Early Childhood Education Center, a groundbreaking facility that represents the community’s commitment to its children.

“A lot of our students come from very disadvantaged backgrounds,” Hamilton says. “The fact that they can benefit from that head start before they come to kindergarten is huge. For kids that age and who may come from poverty, every little bit helps.”

Sand Springs is just one town in a state that has earned a reputation as a national leader in providing high-quality early childhood education. In this deep red state, public school for all intents and purposed begins at age 4. Oklahoma provides pre-K access to 74 percent of those children, and it’s ninth in the nation for early ed funding.

President Obama touted the Sooner State in his recent State of the Union Address as he called for a national investment in universal preschool education.

“In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more stable families of their own. We know this works,” Obama said.

President Barack Obama visited a pre-kindergarten classroom in Decatur, Ga., on Feb. 14, 2013. Photo: Pete Souza

Access to high quality early childhood education is particularly essential for students in high poverty communities. Research has consistently shown that effective programs, which can give these kids a major boost, are a significant predictor of a child’s future educational achievement and emotional development.

In 2011, Congress created the Equity and Excellence Commission, chaired by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, to examine educational disparities that give rise to the achievement gap. Last week, the Commission issued its report urging the federal government to “guarantee, within the next decade, that all low-income children will have access to early childhood programs.” The Commission called for a federal match to states to enroll low-income children in quality pre-kindergarten programs, which is the hub of the White House proposal.

“We know that education creates opportunity and helps to ensure a level playing field for students who might be attending schools that are not equipped with the mostly up-to-date tools and resources,” explained NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, who served on the Commission. “Early childhood education and full day kindergarten are fundamental to long term student success.”

We’re 28th!

The United States currently ranks 28th out of 38 countries in enrolling children in pre-K programs. According to the 2011 State of Preschool report released by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEE), fewer than three in ten four-year-olds are enrolled in high-quality programs – no surprise given that state funding for these pre-K programs has steadily decreased, plummeting by more than $700 per child nationwide over the past decade. Ten states provide no state pre-K funding at all.

Source: National Institute for Early Education Research

“We’re on the edge of a crisis in this country,” says NIEER Director W. Steven Barnett.

Barnet believes that early education advocacy isn’t necessarily a partisan issue and points to states where both political parties have worked together to make high-quality pre-school education available to more children.

As the Obama administration unveils more details about its pre-K initiative, however, the hyper-partisanship and bitter budget battles in Washington have undoubtedly created a steeper hill for early childhood advocates to climb.

“How Can We Not Invest In it?”

Despite the well-documented benefits of high-quality early childhood programs, critics of a federal initiative to expand access believe that it is not something the country can afford right now. While the cost of any new program is a justifiable and sensible concern, so-called fiscally conservative lawmakers refuse to acknowledge how effective pre-K programs can actually improve the nation’s balance sheet.

In fact, investing in early childhood education is fiscally responsible because it yields a tremendous return on investment, ranging from $3 to $17 for every dollar invested. A recent National Institutes of Health study of Chicago’s preschool program, for example, concluded that it will generate up to “$11 of economic benefits over a child’s lifetime for every dollar spent initially on the program.” Early childhood programs can reduce and eliminate educational costs many children end up facing down the road, including the need for special education services and education remediation – not to mention lower juvenile justice rates, and improved health outcomes.

Teachers like Laura Hamilton in Oklahoma see the short-term educational benefits every day.

“It’s very clear to me which students have come from a preschool program and which have not,” Hamilton says. “The kids who have gone through the program are at a huge advantage – they know their ABCs, they’re familiar with the school structure, they’re just more ready to learn. Having access to a good pre-k program means so much for kids from low-income families. They really need this step-up. How can we not invest in it?”

Learn more about NEA’s position on early childhood education