Why We Must Provide Universal Access to High Quality Early Childhood Education

Posted by Blake Wright on April 01, 2014 at 9:24 AM


Long before the President made early education one of his top priorities during the 2014 State of the Union address, numerous states across the country began debating the and benefits associated with public preschool programs. But why has early education become such a hot topic recently? Do governments have any incentive to push for such initiatives?

What “early childhood education” bills have been proposed at the federal level? Today, many states around the country are operating or are in the process of creating high-quality early childhood education programs accessible by all preschool-age students. However, the federal government has been managing similar programs for the nation’s poorest children for nearly 50 years. In 1965, Head Start was created under the Johnson Administration and strove to address the emotional, social, nutritional, and psychological needs of preschool children from the lowest socioeconomic classes. [1] In fact, Congress has already created over 45 federal programs that contain some kind of focus on early-education outcomes and success. [3]

While many initiatives attempt to create more positive learning environments and outcomes for the youngest Americans, a handful of congressmen are working on legislation that would give the federal government a much greater role in the creation of early education programs. In November 2013, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and U.S. representatives George Miller (D-CA) and Richard Hanna (R-NY) proposed a bill that would create universal access to high-quality preschool for all low- and middle-income children. Through a federal-state partnership, states would receive money to develop existing programs and create new ones. The legislation would directly benefit all four-year-olds that live with families making 200 percent or below the federal poverty threshold. [2]

Why is early education especially relevant in today’s ever-changing economy? Dialogue about income inequality has become especially prevalent over the past few years. Incomes in America are more stratified than ever; over the past three decades, the gap has grown even larger than the gap present during the extravagant 1920s. Nobel laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz asserts that this rising inequality not only hinders economic growth but also destabilizes the entire financial system. [4] Americans are increasingly concerned about equal opportunity and the ability for hard-working individuals to overcome environmental obstacles and achieve the American Dream.

Polls consistently show that a majority of Americans believe education is the great equalizer. States and local cities invest billions for education annually, preparing students for entrance into the competitive global job market and the obtainment of a high-skill, high-pay job. Many perceive education as the biggest opportunity for those without resources to build the human capital necessary to compete on equal footing against their peers in the labor force.

However, this is largely untrue today. Children growing up in impoverished, single-parent households are more likely to experience a range of negative outcomes in school and later on in their lives. Because of time and budget constraints, children may not receive the attention, resources, or educational stimulation from a single parent that a child living in a middle- or upper-income two-parent household may receive. Poor children are also more likely to be exposed to food insecurity, toxins in the home, and lack access to critical health services. [5]

High-quality early childhood education initiatives both fight poverty by shrinking the achievement gap but produces significant macroeconomic gains in the long run. A child that has successfully completed preschool is 25 percent less likely to drop out of school, 40 percent less likely to become a teenage parent, and 70 percent less likely to be arrested because of a violent crime. [6] According to a RAND report, society can see investment returns ranging from $1.80 to $17.07 for every dollar invested in early education.  [7]

Is early education legislation likely to gain any traction in Congress? Although the legislation proposed by Sen. Harkin and his colleagues is not likely to become law, both sides of the aisle largely accept the social, educational, and economic benefits of early education. The current battle in Congress is largely over funding methods and implementation. Many of the advocates for Sen. Harkin’s bill argue that the while the price tag for the legislation is high - $30 billion over the first five years – new taxes could be levied on tobacco products to offset the price. [3]

Because of the gridlock at the federal level, numerous governors have made early education a priority in their state governments. Out of the 27 governors that mentioned expanding preschool in their state of the state addresses, 14 were Republicans. In fact, both Democrats and Republicans support preschool programs because they promote military readiness and help level the playing field for people of all socioeconomic backgrounds. [6]

Why should you get involved in the push for universal access to early education? Promoting early education initiatives benefits the young students enrolled in the programs as well as society at large! Providing students from low-income households with educational stimulation and resources prepares them for a successful academic and professional career by establishing solid foundations for future learning. Taxpayers as a whole benefit from the initial public investment also – successful high school graduates (shaped by the preschool program) are more likely to pursue college degrees, less likely to require government assistance due to higher wages, and less likely to be incarcerated in adulthood.  The data show that the individual and societal advantages of universal early education are real, but it is up to us to make sure that governments act and each child has access to a high-quality preschool program.



[1]       http://www.saltlakeheadstart.org/about-us/history-facts/

[2]       http://www.scpr.org/blogs/education/2013/11/12/15173/universal-   preschool-bill-to-be-introduced-in-congr/

[3]       http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2014/02/19/21momentum.h33.html

[4]       http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/26/business/economy/making-sense-of-income-inequality.html?_r=0

[5]       Coley, Richard J., and Bruce Baker. Poverty and Education: Finding the Way     Forward. Rep. The ETS Center for Research on Human Capital and Education, July 2013. Web. 27 Mar. 2014.

[6]       http://thinkprogress.org/education/2013/06/05/2104771/five-surprising-facts-about-early-childhood-education/

[7]       http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_briefs/RB9145.html