Lesley, of Washington, D.C., is president of First Focus, a bipartisan organization that advocates for children and families in policy and budget decisions. Rooker is executive director of Voices for Children in Nebraska.
In America, a child’s ability — not the circumstances of birth — should determine his or her future. But today, a family’s income has everything to do with whether children succeed. Good-quality pre-kindergarten education can make all the difference.
By age 5, just 48 percent of poor children in America are ready for school, compared with three-fourths of children from families with moderate and high incomes. Once kids fall behind, the research shows they’re much less likely to catch up. A student from a poor family who cannot read at grade level by third grade is 13 times less likely to graduate from high school.
And the consequences are felt in communities all over Nebraska. About 2,000 kids drop out of Nebraska high schools every year. And every time we fail to graduate a child from high school, the foregone tax revenue and increased costs of health care, criminal justice and other public expenditures total nearly $300,000.
What’s the problem? Money. A year of privately funded pre-K costs about as much as a year of college tuition at a public university. And while many children in low-income families attend Head Start or other publicly funded pre-K, these programs don’t have the funding they need to serve all the children who qualify. So when it’s not available, kids are left behind.
Children in middle-income families also feel the impact when incomes are too high for Head Start but nowhere near enough to cover the high cost of a private pre-K. As a result, just under half of middle-income children attend publicly subsidized pre-K — usually financed through states or school districts. But these opportunities are also underfunded, leaving many middle-income children behind.
These inequities hurt all of us. They strain our public education system, making K-12 education more about helping kids catch up than challenging all students to pursue academic excellence. And when kids fail to reach their potential, the result is lower lifelong productivity and higher taxpayer costs for law enforcement, health care and welfare.
Solving this problem boils down to two relatively straightforward requirements: affordability and quality. High-quality early education doesn’t matter if it doesn’t reach the kids who need it most, so solving this problem means making pre-K affordable. We also must ensure the quality of pre-K educational opportunities so all kids get real educational benefit and taxpayers get real value for their dollar.
Nebraska has already recognized the importance of affordability and quality in early childhood education. This year, the Legislature took an important step toward improving the child care subsidy program by establishing a quality rating system for large, publicly funded child care centers. Recognizing that affordability is important too, Nebraska increased the eligibility level so more families are able to access good-quality child care.
But Nebraska’s economic competition isn’t coming from Connecticut and Indiana. It’s coming from China and India. This is a national problem, and our leaders in Congress must craft a national strategy.
A federal-state partnership would provide the federal funding necessary to make pre-K affordable for every child. And quality would be ensured, because federal funding would be limited to providers meeting evidence-informed quality standards.
We know it won’t be easy, but can no longer ignore the evidence that some of the most important learning takes place in the years before kindergarten. That expensive delusion has already cost children and taxpayers too much. A child’s potential, not a parent’s income, should define the limits of success in school and life.