Why Doesn’t the U.S. Invest in Early Education?

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April 2-8 of this year was the Week of the Young Child, seven days intended to focus the attention of both the public and policymakers on vital issues related to young children. In all likelihood, however, this is the first you’ve heard of the Week of the Young Child. Despite the valiant efforts of organizers across the nation, the mainstream press simply had no interest in considering efforts to build a better future for young children.


This lack of attention is, unfortunately, symbolic of the way our nation addresses the needs of young learners. Among the community of nations, however, there are countries that understand the importance of getting children off on the right foot.

In March, I had the opportunity to visit one such nation. This country now offers three years of kindergarten, beginning at age 3. Currently, 56 percent of eligible children in this country, about 4 million, are enrolled in preschools. If you are wondering which country has such an ambitious vision for young children, you will have to look beyond the usual suspects like Sweden and Italy. The vision belongs to Mexico.

The U.S. vision stands in stark contrast. According to the Committee for Economic Development, we rank last among Western countries in early-education policies. In fact, it would be a stretch to say that the United States even has an early-education policy. Most states support a variety of programs through indirect funding sources; sadly, access to these programs is always limited.

The motivation for Mexican education reform is driven by high grade retention, high dropout rates, and low test scores—even when compared with children from other Latin American countries. Why does the Mexican government believe that early education is part of the solution? The answer can be found in U.S. research.

A handful of experimental studies have documented that early-education programs promote school achievement, especially for children at risk for poor school outcomes. Economists have demonstrated convincingly that every dollar invested in early childhood saves $4, because children who participate in early education are less likely to require special education services, and they are less likely to end up in the costly juvenile-justice system.

So if early-childhood education works, and saves taxpayer dollars, why doesn’t the United States invest in it? Because values trump data every time. Early-education policy in the Unites States has its roots in the social-welfare initiatives that began at the turn of the 20th century and continue to this day with successful programs like Head Start. As such, support for early education has been conflated with support for the poor. We also have the “mommy wars,” fueled by so-called experts who have pitted employed vs. nonemployed mothers on the issue of whether child care is good for children. Given this cultural landscape, it is hardly surprising that the end result has been mixed public support for early education.

I have seen progress in recent years, with commitments to universal early education growing in states like Oklahoma, Georgia, Florida, and my home state of Massachusetts, where the legislature has consolidated governance of early-education programs and made a commitment to provide voluntary, universal prekindergarten for 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds by 2012. The force behind this progress in Massachusetts is the business community (through its support of the Early Education for All Campaign), which understands that the ability to recruit a qualified workforce depends in part on early education and care.

One step forward and one step back is not good enough. We must not wait another year to focus our attention on this critical issue.

But I have also seen some backsliding. President Bush’s proposed budget for fiscal 2007 would freeze discretionary spending on child care for the fifth year in a row, resulting in a projected decline in early-education and child-care opportunities for more than 450,000 children between 2000 and 2007.

One step forward and one step back is not good enough. The Week of the Young Child may have passed quietly, but we must not wait another year to focus our attention on this critical issue. Economic researchers tell us that early-childhood education is a good investment. And common sense should tell us that an educated citizenry ensures not only a vibrant economy, but also people who are prepared to build fulfilling lives, functioning families, and caring communities.

Better futures depend on our actions in the present. It is time we acted on the knowledge that early education sets the stage for school success.

Vol. 25, Issue 36, Pages 34, 44

Published in Print: May 10, 2006, as Why Doesn’t the U.S. Invest In Early Education?
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