What’s Next for Early Childhood Education in America?

President Obama has jump-started the preschool trend, but will all the talk lead to a better education for our littlest learners?
Access to early childhood education is an important issue and one that needs to be immediately addressed. (Photo: Washington Post/Getty Images)
Mar 13, 2013· 2 MIN READ
Suzi Parker is a regular contributor to TakePart. Her work also appears in The Christian Science Monitor and Reuters.

President Barack Obama is a believer in early childhood education.

He often talked about it on the campaign trail in 2008 and 2012, and in his February State of the Union address, he said, “Tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America. Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.”

The president has yet to lay out a concrete plan on how to achieve this goal, but his message resonated. Congress and state legislatures have jumped onto the early education bandwagon by introducing legislation. A series of bills in Washington and around the country are, fortunately, aimed at educating children before they hit elementary school.

“Early childhood education is an important predictor for students' success in schools, but also for lifelong success,” Villanova University Education Professor Edward Fierros told TakePart. “Several studies that investigated successful people of color have found that a large majority of these students had been enrolled in some sort of preschool program. Students who attend preschools are less likely to drop out of high school, less likely to go to prison, and more likely to be employed.”

Aside from Washington, states realize the importance of early childhood education.

In New Mexico, legislators are looking at a bill that would make the state the first to clearly protect early education funding in its constitution. The constitutional amendment would fund preschool by an additional $100 million annually.

A pair of bills currently in the Missouri statehouse would add childhood education to the state’s funding formula. In South Carolina, pending legislation would expand full-day kindergarten statewide. This would make a big impact on the lives of four-year-olds from low-income families. In Nevada, some legislators want a massive investment—$310 million for new education programs, including full-day kindergarten and pre-kindergarten education.

Education academics say that such bills are critical to society. Dr. William Wei-Choun Yu, an economist for UCLA’s Anderson Forecast, told TakePart that such investments by states are “one of the most cost-effective and comprehensive ways to improve high-school graduation rates, to reduce crime rates, to reduce teen pregnancy, to reduce job training costs, to reduce healthcare costs, and to reduce prison costs.”

He added, “The benefits mainly come from providing an appropriate environment to educate disadvantaged children whose parenting is insufficient. And the benefits derive from developing in those children positive and balanced non-cognitive skills, such as a positive social-emotional behaviors and attitudes.”

In Washington, U.S. Senator Bob Casey, a Democrat from Pennsylvania, has proposed “Prepare All Kids,” which would offer federal support for early education for low-income and special-needs children across the country. If states opt into the program, they will have to match federal funding.

The proposed legislation includes several elements, including providing at least one year of voluntary pre-K, with a focus on children from low-income families and kids with special needs; limiting class size to a maximum of 20 children and children-to-teacher ratios to no more than ten to one. It would also require that pre-K programs use a research-based curricula that supports children’s cognitive, social, emotional and physical development, and individual learning styles.

Other legislation in Washington includes bills that would:

  • Offer states to compete for federal grants to establish and operate high-quality pre-kindergarten programs
  • Help parents access more information about early childhood programs by setting up a toll-free referral line and website
  • Offer funding to states that would allow teacher training, extending program time, and offer health screenings and meals to children

But every piece of legislation, at the federal and state level, faces major battles.

In many states, rural Republicans, and even some Democrats, consider early childhood education as government overreach instead of an investment.With Washington in gridlock, it’s unclear how far any of the proposed ideas such as Casey’s will go.

“Despite the abundant research showing the positive outcomes for students that participate in an early childhood program, state legislators are reticent to fund these programs because of their short-term costs,” Fierros said. “Moreover, some state legislators will be less likely to support early childhood programs in their states because President Obama is leading the effort to make early childhood a national priority.”