Despite Current, Proposed Investments in Early Education, U.S. Lags Far Behind Other Countries

By Stephanie Schmit and Emily Firgens

While it is great news that the importance of early education is starting to gain traction across the country, it is crucial to recognize where we are as a country and how far we have to go. President Obama has proposed  big investments in early education, and the Senate appropriations committee took the first steps recently toward making that proposal a reality. This investment in young children would come at a critical time as the U.S. falls behind other nations and many families lack access to high-quality child care and early education options.

A new report from the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) highlights the lack of both investment and participation in pre-kindergarten in the United States. The enrollment of 4-year-olds in preschool has increased over the years, but internationally the U.S. is not keeping pace with countries such as the U.K., France, Germany, and Japan that enroll almost all 4-year-olds in preschool. In the U.S., only 69 percent of 4-year-olds are enrolled in preschool compared to 81 percent of 4-year-olds in the developed world. The CFR report emphasizes the importance of providing access to high-quality early education experiences, as well as the importance of investing in early education through programs like Head Start, child care subsidies for low-income families, and child care tax credits. 

And while the nation, as a whole, needs further investments to ensure high-quality early education opportunities for the youngest children, some states and cities are doing what they can to  provide access to early education for their youngest citizens. For example, the New York City Comptroller’s Office released a report detailing the need for increased investment in the city’s early care and education programs. The city currently enrolls 176,153 children in publicly funded early care and education programs, including child care, preschool, and Head Start programs. However, there remains a large unmet need for child care and early education programs. The Comptroller’s Office calculated that $6.1 billion is needed to provide universal, comprehensive, high-quality early care and education for all of New York City’s children. Current investments from city, state, and federal sources total only $1.5 billion. The Office recommends an immediate $1.5 billion in new investment to begin phasing in universal access to early care and education by fully funding the city’s Universal Pre-Kindergarten program for 4-year-olds, creating universal preschool for 3-year-olds and expanding the city’s Nurse-Family Partnership program to all low-income, first-time mothers. Additionally, the report recommends that the city create an Office of Early Childhood Development and Learning to improve coordination and better align the city’s resources and efforts.

It’s reassuring to see our country’s largest city recognize that access to quality early education programs requires substantial dollars; and there is no better investment than high-quality early education. Yet, even with state and local investments, communities will still fall short of meeting the needs of all vulnerable young children without significant federal investment. The most immediate next step in the federal budget process is for the House to mark up its 2014 appropriations, which have the possibility of imposing deep cuts on programs that support our most vulnerable families. Let’s hope members of Congress, and all policymakers, put the needs of our youngest children at the forefront of their budgetary decisions.  As a country, we should be valuing our children just as highly as other developed nations around the world.