We all know there’s a connection between fighting poverty and expanding access to early childhood education. Children who attend pre-K are more likely to graduate from high school, attend college, be employed at age 40 and earn higher wages. Indeed, economists estimate that for every $1 we invest in early childhood education, we yield $7 in return on investment.
Every kid deserves a fair shot in life and that starts with a quality education, early on. So how are we doing?
The short and immediate, look-just-beyond-your nose answer is: not good. Last year, for the first time in a decade, fewer 4-year-olds had access to pre-K than the year before – a modest nationwide decline of 9,000 kids in all, according to the 2013 State Preschool Yearbook, published by the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.
But the long-term forecast is a good deal rosier. In state after state, legislators are waking up to more favorable fiscal outlooks at the same time that new coalitions of educators, social scientists, law enforcement officials, pediatricians, nurses and others are singing the praises of early intervention.
The list of states that have made progress in establishing pre-K is growing longer: Alabama. Arizona. Georgia. Illinois. Maryland. Oklahoma. In other places, like Pennsylvania, the debate is raging. Pollsters Celinda Lake and Christine Matthews recently outlined the debate in an op-ed published in Pennsylvania:
“What we are seeing around the country in the campaigns of many candidates this election season is broad support for access to high-quality pre-k. It was a central issue in the recent New York City mayor’s race, and it’s a simmering one in the hotly contested race for governor in Texas. Why now? And why in such very different political environments?
“Voters strongly value education and believe that pre-K education helps children arrive to Kindergarten (and beyond) ready to learn. Voters believe pre-K can improve a child’s social skills, which helps them through grade school. They see the long-term benefits in terms of better test scores, graduation rates, and lifetime earnings and employment.
“They overwhelmingly agree that the more kids who have access to high-quality pre-k, the better it is for ALL students in kindergarten classrooms, so teachers aren’t stretched doing remediation and classrooms aren’t disrupted.”
Politically, the issue seems to have resonance for two reasons. First, at the local level, education historically has not been viewed as a partisan issue. In fact, if you look at the three states with the highest enrollment of 4-year-olds in pre-K, one state is decidedly red (Oklahoma), one state is decidedly blue (Vermont), and one state is decidedly mixed (Florida).
Second, bipartisan support has emerged – and is strengthening – for pre-K. Again we turn to Lake and Matthews:
“Why does this seem to be a political moment for pre-k? The political will to invest in high-quality pre-k around the nation may also reflect what our research in Pennsylvania tells us: there is broad bi-partisan support for pre-k.
“Eighty-three (83) percent of Democrats, 61 percent of Independents, and 56 percent of Republicans favor ensuring every 3 and 4 year old in Pennsylvania has access to voluntary, high quality pre-K programs. In fact a majority of Pennsylvania voters see the benefit as so clear that they support increased state funding for such programs (59 percent) – Pennsylvania voters, like those in many other states, recognize the results justify the investment.”
So how do we bring this home and make universal pre-K a reality in the U.S.? It is only going to happen through a combination of public education and individual empowerment. The public education is happening – we see it in the letters to the editor and op-eds that, with increased regularity, are appearing in publications across the country.
The individual empowerment will happen as a result of neighbor talking to neighbor and groups that are fighting for pre-K (like Fair Share Education Fund) providing ordinary Americans with a platform to demand action. And it will happen when Americans realize that the benefits of pre-K go well beyond childhood education – they’re good for families and good for the economy.
Just ask Jill McCain Santiago, a lawyer and mother of two who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Massachusetts Fair Share recruited McCain Santiago to tell her story of how pre-K allowed her to go back to work, expand her law practice and hire additional employees. “We’re so thankful to have both boys in safe, caring learning environments that are helping them prepare for kindergarten and beyond,” McCain Santiago said. “This has allowed me to grow my business … I’ve been able to hire two employees and serve more families. I strongly believe that all families deserve the fair shot that we have been lucky enough to get.”