Why Preschool Isn’t Just Fun and Games

The long-term effects of preschool are finally getting recognized at the federal and state level.

Early childhood education may get more funding at the federal and state level. (Photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Suzi Parker is a journalist whose work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

President Barack Obama seems poised to make early childhood education a top priority in his second term.

According to the White House website, Obama wants to "reform K-12 education funding by encouraging states to adopt higher standards, and improving teaching and learning assessments." It adds, "President Obama's comprehensive agenda invests in and strengthens early childhood education for our nation's youngest children. It helps to prevent achievement gaps before they start, and invests from an early age in children as our most critical national resource."

Governors and state leaders—Republicans and Democrats—across the country aren't waiting for Obama. As legislatures gear up, pre-K education is at the top of many states' agendas.

On January 30, Mississippi's Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and House Speaker Philip Gunn, both Republicans, announced a bill that would provide matching funds to local early childhood education programs through various avenues, including public school districts, private and parochial schools, private childcare centers, and Head Start. In Mississippi, a state that is trying to revamp its education system and improve test scores, 85 percent of four-year-old children participate in an early childhood education program.

Republican Missouri Governor Jay Nixon visited a preschool this week in order to tout the importance of early education.

"Early childhood education is a smart investment with a very big return. Study after study confirms what parents and educators see each day firsthand: the first five years of a child's development have an impact that last a lifetime," Nixon said.

Nixon's 2014 budget, which he announced in early January, includes a $17 million increase in early childhood funding.

One of the most comprehensive plans comes from Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, a Democrat. He would like to eliminate preschool waiting lists by 2017 and plans to invest nearly $57 million in order to do so. He also wants to spend another $60.5 million to "enhance the quality of early education programs and the effectiveness of the early educator workforce."

A national report by America’s Edge noted on January 29 that an early childhood education investment has short-term economic advantages for those who are employed and long-term advantages for the children who partake.

On the organization's s website, its national director, Susan L. Gates, writes, "Research demonstrates that the foundation for the skills businesses need their future employees to have is developed during a child’s earliest years—from birth through age five."

Innovative programs appease some critics who cringe at the thought of providing more funding to programs they don't believe work. This includes the Head Start program.

Larry Sand, a former teacher and now president of the California Teachers Empowerment Network, told TakePart, "The short answer on 'early childhood education' is it depends. Head Start has been a $180 billion—and counting—waste of money. Before another penny is spent, we need to ensure that it is going to be spent in a way that will actually do some good."

Sand recently wrote a column in which he called Head Start, which was created by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965, as an "expensive and wasteful federal babysitting program."

He says the United States would fare well to look at early education programs in other countries, such as France.

Still, education advocates want to be sure Obama addresses early education in his State of the Union on Feb. 12, and they are lobbying for him to do so.

Elaine Weiss, the national coordinator for the Broader Bolder Approach to Education, and Cassie Schwerner, senior vice president of programs at the Schott Foundation for Public Education, recently wrote an open letter to Obama in The Washington Post calling for him to make early childhood education a top priority.

If Obama took bold steps in early education, they said that it would make him "a uniquely effective 'education president' and leave a lasting positive legacy."

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