As Young Children Head Back to School, the Importance of Early Education is Clear

Sep 03, 2013

By Hannah Matthews

Summer has come to a close and young children across the country have put away their swimsuits, gathered up their books and are heading back to school. For some, it may be their first experience in the K-12 school system. According to new analysis from Child Trends, 4 million young children will begin kindergarten this fall. Their backpack-toting pictures are popping up in our Facebook news feeds and on the pages of local newspapers across the country.

What the photos do not reveal is the heavy load that many of our youngsters will unwittingly carry with them into their school experiences.  According to the Child Trends profile, 1 in 4 of these young learners lives in poverty. And nearly half live in low-income families with incomes below twice the federal poverty level, or less than $40,000/year for a family of three. Millions of those smiling and eager students walking down our sidewalks and climbing onto yellow school buses are living in families struggling with the challenges of unemployment and low-wage work. Their parents struggle to put food on the table and are seeing a middle-class existence further and further out of reach.

Already, and well before entry into kindergarten, the achievement gap between low-income children and their peers from more advantaged families is well-established.  Many of today's kindergarteners will face certain hurdles in academic achievement that threaten their own economic success as adults. Recently, ETS, an educational research and assessment organization, became the latest group to sound the alarm about the devastating consequences of child poverty for long-term educational and economic outcomes.

Addressing child poverty requires solutions across a broad spectrum of policy areas, including job creation, job quality, and economic and social supports for children and their parents. Central to any sound poverty reduction strategy is a focus on children's early education opportunities. Too many young children in low-income families arrive in kindergarten without prior experience in a high-quality early education program that can help prepare them for school success. Currently, only 28 percent of 4-year-olds in the US are enrolled in a state-funded preschool program and only 42 percent of eligible children (children living in families at or below 100 percent of the federal poverty level) are served through the Head Start program. With sequestration, even fewer Head Start children are heading back to classrooms this fall.

In February, President Obama first announced his plan to provide universal pre-kindergarten to low-income children as part of a comprehensive birth to five early learning plan.  President Obama's plan can help ensure that more children have access to quality early learning experiences. And while the President understands the importance that investments in early learning can make, we need to be sure Congress knows, too.  Help us tell Congress how important quality early learning is for young children and families. With our partners from the Strong Start for Children Campaign, CLASP is gathering stories for a book we'll present to key federal policy makers to show what a difference high-quality child care and early education can make! Share your story here>>

The first day of kindergarten should mark the very beginning of an exciting time of learning and discovery for all children.  By working together, we can make sure that key decision makers determining the success of the President's bold early learning initiative understand that all children must leave their homes on that first day of kindergarten ready to learn and discover.

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