U.S. Lags in Early Childhood Investments

Jul 09, 2010

By Teresa Lim

Countries around the world have taken comprehensive measures to ensure that all young children have access to the early care and learning services they need for healthy growth and development. The United States, too, should step up and address challenges and opportunities to support all children, from birth to school entry, and become a model for other countries to emulate.

In many European countries, universal preschool is a common institution. Parents can work full-time, and all young children have the chance for an equal start in school. A recent National Public Radio (NPR) story highlights the positive experiences of families with young children in France's universal preschool system, which is called ecole maternelle. In France, all children begin preschool at age three and continue attending through age five. Parents highly regard ecole maternelle, which emphasizes teaching children early social interaction skills. France, along with Nordic countries, has the highest level of investments in early childhood education. The NPR story contrasts this with early education in the U.S. where investments in preschool vary by state. Some states offer full-day and year public preschool, while others have limited or no public programs. Federal programs, such as Head Start, are important investments that provide high-quality early learning services and supports to low-income children and their families. Unfortunately, many families who cannot afford high-quality preschool programs also are not eligible for Head Start.

According to a report by the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) released last year, the U.S. ranks the fourth worst in infant mortality rates among 30 member countries in the OECD. Moreover, the 22 percent U.S. child poverty rate is almost double the average OECD rate (12 percent). The report recommends the U.S. invest more in early care and education for young children. Currently, the U.S. spends about a third less than the OECD average on children, birth to five years old. The OECD Early Childhood Education and Care Network, also called Starting Strong, recently held its seventh meeting in France to share ideas about effective early care and education policies. The meeting's focus was financing early childhood services. Starting Strong invited countries to discuss issues, such as collecting data on costs and financing, analyzing the returns on early childhood investments, and developing funding strategies to increase efficiency, equity, and quality. Presentations from the meeting, including those from U.S. representatives, have been posted on the OECD website.

In these difficult economic times, the United States must make careful decisions on investments for children from birth to age five. The various financing models used by countries around the world illustrate that there are many ways to think creatively about supporting the needs of our nation's youngest children.   


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