Politicians of all stripes argue for equal opportunity. The truth, however, is that until we enact a better system of early childhood care, many low-income and impoverished families won’t get a fair shake.
Here’s the fact of life in America today: gender and race — though still relevant — are less related to a person’s eventual success in society than their family’s economic status. It’s almost as if we’ve created a throwback economic class system at the same time we’ve moved forward on social issues. This may be the land of opportunity, but today there’s a lot more opportunity for those born wealthy. By my estimation, the best way to solve this problem is better early childhood education and care.
A recent article first published in The New York Times and now making the rounds via syndication in other newspapers and websites touted one of the initiatives for which Oklahoma’s citizens are proudest — universal early childhood education. Yep, in this reddest of red states, every single 4-year-old has access to a year of pre-kindergarten education, and those deemed at-risk get access to pre-school at an even earlier age.
A few weeks ago, the N.C. Supreme Court ruled that the General Assembly here had resolved a legal challenge by reversing course on its limits to pre-K programs for the poor. Still, our GOP-led General Assembly has cut access to pre-K. In 2010-11, 32,000 children were enrolled; right now, 26,700 needy children are in pre-K. According to some estimates, 67,000 of the state’s 4-year-olds are eligible for the early childhood intervention, but there’s not enough money allocated to the program to serve all those who need it. It would take an additional $300 million to pay for those extra kids.
North Carolina has cut investment in K-12 schools by 8.6 percent since 2008 when measured by per pupil spending, a deeper cut than 31 other states, according to a report released by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a non-partisan policy research organization based in Washington, D.C.
What’s remarkable about Oklahoma is that the merits of early childhood intervention are not ping-ponged back and forth as a political issue.
“This isn’t a liberal issue,” Skip Steele, a Republican on the Tulsa City Council who supports Oklahoma’s initiative, told The New York Times. “This is investing in our kids, in our future. It’s a no-brainer.”
The amount of research on the benefits of early childhood intervention is overwhelming. Helping children at an early age bestows lifelong advantages that are good for all of society.
“Decades of research show that children who attend high-quality early learning programs perform better in school, have higher graduation rates, have higher earnings, pay more taxes and are less likely to rely on government assistance,” said Susan Perry-Manning, executive director of the North Carolina Early Childhood Foundation.
Those of us who have kids — who have the time, read to them and interact with them — know the reality. We take our kids to the first day of kindergarten already knowing most of what is required of first-graders. The teachers, meanwhile, have to spend a great deal of time catching up those who haven’t had those same opportunities. From day one, those students are playing catch up.
One study discussed in the article suggested that a child of professional parents hears 30 million more words by the age of 4 than a kid on welfare. Imagine the difference in the world inhabited by each of those children.
Look, we’ve created an economic system that relies on two parents working outside the home to pay for the basics. If this had been the case back when the Founding Fathers were doing their thing, I suspect their concept of a free, universal system of public education would have included taking care of very young children.
The government is not responsible for providing cradle-to-grave welfare. But if it wants to reduce the amount of money being spent on adults and the elderly — in the form of unemployment benefits, food aid, prisons, welfare payments, etc. — then an investment in the very young is the obvious best answer.