President Proposes Smart, Urgent Investment with Early Learning Plan

Jun 05, 2013

By Hannah Matthews

The Academic Pediatric Association (APA) recently called child poverty "the most important problem facing children in the US today." Nearly half of our youngest children, under age 6, live in households earning less than twice the federal poverty level, or $23,550 for a family of four. From children's earliest days, public investments fall far short of meeting their needs. And for both low- and middle-income families, the public safeguards and supports that have buttressed them during challenging times now face serious threats. Cuts under the federal budget sequester are in place and will get worse in future years. The country's safety net, which has deteriorated from having gaping holes to now being nearly shredded, is insufficient to help those who lost jobs and income in the recent recession.

This disinvestment in programs to help low-income families is not without consequence. Poverty robs young children of the developmental and educational inputs they need during a critical period of early development. The result: increasing numbers of children arriving in kindergarten without the fundamental skills they need for success in school and in life. With more children in households falling out of the middle class, we cannot afford, as a country, to ignore this crisis any longer.

We can do much to reduce poverty and increase opportunity in this country. And central to nearly every serious plan is a significant investment in child care and early education. The long term effects of high-quality early education for disadvantaged children have been well-documented. The return on investment has been calculated. The positive impact on the economy has been quantified. Economists, educators, business leaders, and policymakers alike have recognized the significant need for and substantial benefits of affordable, quality child care and early education for both children and parents.

And yet, despite the abundance of data, our most vulnerable children are often deprived of access to quality early learning experiences. Head Start, which has been documented to improve the life trajectory of poor children, serves fewer than half of those eligible and Early Head Start serves a pitiful fraction - fewer than 4 percent of eligible children and families. State pre-kindergarten programs have waned in recent years. Affordable, quality child care is almost entirely out of reach for low-income working families.

In February, President Obama first announced a bold plan for unprecedented investments in early learning. Central to his Early Learning Plan is universal preschool for low-income children, a proposal that would advance this country's educational system and global competiveness, as well as improve the lives of millions of young children and their families.

The Administration's proposed Early Learning Plan is nothing short of enormous. This birth to five education agenda expands home visiting services, child care-Early Head Start partnerships and pre-kindergarten for low- and middle-income children. But as a country we can't afford not to go bold. The ground-breaking proposal includes:

  • Preschool for All- $75 billion in mandatory funding across 10 years to support universal access to state preschool programs for low- and middle-income families. Additionally, $750 million in discretionary funding would be available in FY 2014 as development grants to states to create or strengthen their early education systems in preparation for the Preschool for All initiative.
  • Home Visiting- $15 billion over 10 years to expand home visiting programs. Home visiting programs provide family support and connect children and their parents to resources during a critical developmental period for young children.
  • Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships- $1.4 billion to support Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships. These will provide increased access to comprehensive, high-quality child care for infants and toddlers.

Society bears a large cost burden for children not equipped to succeed in life, including lowered earnings and productivity, greater expenditures in the criminal justice system, and so on. While an investment in early education alone will not address high unemployment and declining wages, it can begin to change the life trajectory for a generation of children whose families have shouldered the burden of our economic downturn. It can contribute to rebuilding the middle class and help equalize the opportunities our children have at the starting gate.

The President's Early Learning Plan has the ability to combat poverty, help more children access high-quality child care and early education programs, prepare children to enter school ready to learn, and help children and their families succeed in life. And that means a lot for children, families, and society.

Join us today, June 5, at 2pm (Eastern) to continue the discussion at the #PreKForAll Tweetchat.

This post was written as part of the National Women's Law Center's early learning blog carnival.

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