The need for quality early education is urgent and easy to measure. Research shows that by age three, low-income children typically know about 500 words, working-class children know about 750, and high-income children know more than 1,000. This gap results largely because higher income children hear 30 million more words than their low-income peers by age three. These figures present a shameful waste of human potential. Without early educational programs, many children will likely never close this gap.
But the gap can be prevented. Long-range studies have shown that children receiving quality early education show significant and positive effects: higher graduation rates from high school and college, more advanced employment levels and even better health.
Pre-school education programs are vital not only to the participating children, but to the nation’s economy as well. Giving children a solid foundation to their education pays off for decades in lower crime rates, a more skilled workforce and reduced costs to fix the problems of children who were left behind.
But it will take all our villages to make this happen. No federal program alone is sufficient. Public and private resources must be organized locally to strengthen child development. Happily, Georgia has been a leader in this campaign to marshal concerned citizens and public officials. Chambers of Commerce, educators and private foundations have joined forces with leaders around the state to make early education a priority in Georgia.
Many state legislatures, including Georgia’s, are finding the necessary funds to increase our investment in early education, but federal assistance can accelerate the access for all children and help states achieve the levels of quality necessary for both academic and economic results. That’s why the President’s proposals and the bills before the Congress are so important.
The legislation would create a federal-state partnership to improve and expand full-day preschool programs for four-year-olds to help them prepare for the school years ahead.
States will also have the flexibility to use the funds for quality improvement and to serve infants and toddlers, enhancing their public/private partnerships with public schools or private childcare and education providers.
The proposals differ on how the federal government would fund its share. The President’s proposal would rely on mandatory funding outside the appropriations process of Congress. Not surprisingly, the congressional plans call for discretionary funds to be approved by Congress each year.
Either way, the states and the federal government would raise their levels of commitment to early education, a proposition for which there is significant support nationwide.
National polls show that seven out of 10 voters support significant commitments to these programs if they do not add to the federal deficit. And that commitment spans the political spectrum. For example, nearly two-thirds of self-identified Tea Party members support the efforts.
In Georgia, the commitment to improving early education runs deep. The 2013 Pre-K Week events across the state drew 175 legislators and state leaders into classrooms and triggered statewide press coverage. This was no surprise. Thanks to Georgia’s political, educational and business leadership, the state has been in the vanguard of promoting early education. In fact, the formal visions and plans for our state’s growth and success depend on continuing commitments to early education. The reasoning is simple: a strong educational foundation for our children means a strong economic future for our state.
The need is well documented. Children with early-learning experiences in the home and in pre-school programs arrive at kindergarten already prepared to develop the skills they need to succeed in life. Children who lack that preparation are behind in verbal skills and learning ability by the time they are five years old.
The legislation in Congress and many state legislatures would help to address this wasted opportunity. It deserves the support of all of us who want a bright future for our children.
Robert Stone is an attorney who lives in Cobb County. A past chair of the Health Law Section of the Georgia Bar, he serves on the board of Voices for Georgia’s Children, a leading nonprofit advocacy group for children.