Education is a great equalizer, and the opportunity to get it should be available to everyone. This should start with early childhood education, which, if it’s extended to disadvantaged and vulnerable families, has the potential to make a huge impact on our economy and society.
Public interest in early childhood education has been relatively high as of late, and it’s looking like more governments, federal, state and local, are considering expanding or creating programs to help young students get off to a good start.
The years before kindergarten are especially formative in a child’s mental development, and kids start school at vastly different levels: Some can read chapter books while others can’t write their own name; some can do arithmetic while others can’t count to 10.
Head Start, which is federally funded and locally administered, is the largest existing early education program. Three- and 4-year-olds get preschool, while their parents get support in creating a more stable and supportive family environment.
Though social and health impacts are also considered, it is unclear if the program’s economic benefits outweigh its costs.
Other early education programs, however, have been much more successful. In her report for the Brookings Institution, “Impacts of Early Childhood Programs,” Julia B. Isaacs cites a number of state and local programs that have been remarkably successful. The results, just in numerical terms, are impressive: For every dollar spent, between $2 and $17 are returned in the future.
Free preschool also means free daycare, which would allow parents, many of whom are single, to work more or go to school themselves.
In the long term, governments are starving themselves of badly needed tax revenue by neglecting education. It’s a philosophy that underlies public funding for schools: Instead of being reliant on public and private support, people could be out making money and paying taxes.
The economic argument will be the most persuasive, but it’s a civil rights issue at its core.
Young people are condemned to lives of poverty and crime — to the detriment of everyone — if they are not provided for. Their own children usually don’t do any better. This cycle victimizes generation after generation, and education is a way out of it.
New York Times columnist Nick Kristof sums up our country’s mistaken priorities with the claim that we can either build schools now, or prisons later. Kanye West mentions it about once per album: “The system’s broken, the school’s closed, the prison’s open.”
The victims don’t have a voice, and those who could change it are comfortably distant.
Early education will also address racial disparities in educational outcomes, as a disproportionate number of young students who will benefit from these programs are racial minorities.
Funding such programs will be quite the challenge, though.
President Barack Obama called for universal preschool in his State of the Union Address earlier this year. However, there is reluctance by many in Congress to approve any new spending or accomplish anything productive, lest it make the president look good. It’s the same anti-governing strategy that sunk a popular immigration reform bill this summer and shut down the government this fall.
At the state level, times could hardly be worse for investing in education. Washington’s Constitution states that “it is the paramount duty of the state to make ample provision for the education of all children…” But recently, budget deficits have been addressed with huge funding cuts for public schools and universities. The State Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that the Legislature was failing its constitutional duty and mandated that funding be restored to education in the state. Judicial oversight relating to this will continue until 2018.
Local government actually offers the most promise, at least here in Seattle. In September, the City Council passed a resolution establishing a goal of providing affordable, voluntary, universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds. This plan also has the support of Mayor-elect Ed Murray. Perhaps taxpayers will be more willing to fund programs that are administered close to home and affect children in their own communities.
Expanding early childhood education works to level the playing field for children from disadvantaged families. It produces better students and workers. It’s a smart investment in a better future for everyone.
Editor-in-chief Jack Clinch is a senior political science major.