There has been an uneven spotlight on our youngest learners recently. First, leaders around the state visited pre-kindergarten programs to read to 4-year-olds as part of Georgia Pre-K Week 2013 in September. Then, some of these very children were literally furloughed as their school closed for a day – a direct result of the shutdown of the federal government. The schools re-opened, temporarily funded by a philanthropist.
These children and the programs that launch their education deserve more than a fleeting spotlight. Supporting these young learners will have a long-term impact on their future success.
PRE-K IS A CRITICAL milestone in a child’s education – confirmation that Georgia’s investments in pre-K education are a step in the right direction. And while children depend on parents, caregivers and educators for support, early success requires a commitment from us all. Community leaders, business leaders and leaders in local, state and federal government all play important roles in providing the foundation necessary to position children for a lifetime of success.
Why is early learning so important? Research repeatedly confirms that investing in early childhood education for all children – especially disadvantaged children – can prevent an achievement gap later by providing children with the early knowledge and skills they need to do well in school. The achievement gap will never close unless we open the doors of opportunity earlier to the 216,856 children of Georgia’s hard-working but low-income families who need it most. National statistics show that 64 percent of all children younger than age 6 have all parents in the workforce, suggesting that approximately 500,000 Georgia children from birth to age 5 need care while parents work.
Consider these additional statistics:
• By age 4, children of college-educated families have heard 32 million more words spoken than children of families on welfare.
• By age 3, low-income children know 500 words, working-class children know 750, and high-income children know 1,100.
Policymakers have been struggling for years to close the achievement gap in K-12 education. There have been successes, but not nearly dramatic or fast enough. It is important to close the achievement gap early to foster greater learning and financial savings. Georgia is one of a handful of states that is working to prevent this gap with investments in quality early childhood education.
MEDICAL AND developmental science tells us that education starts at birth, not at kindergarten. From infancy to toddlerhood, children build thinking and social skills from interaction and structured and unstructured early learning. Those who have quality early learning experiences through their parents, caregivers and professional teachers come to kindergarten with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed in both school and life. Children who don’t have those experiences arrive far behind their peers in vocabulary, knowledge and key learning abilities such as impulse control, attentiveness, persistence and sociability.
As a result, the education and support a child receives in the earliest years – from birth to age 5 – have a tremendous effect on the ability to do well in school. For example, studies of children who enrolled in high-quality early education programs found that these children had higher reading and math scores, and were more likely to continue to post-secondary education. Early education also helps children develop the character skills they will need as adults to be valuable in the 21st-century workforce.
Georgia is fast becoming a model for the country, with its universal pre-K, public quality rating system for child care, and executive agency with a laser focus on the education of young children. Federal investments, starting with Head Start in 1965, have increased in the 1990s and 2000s as the impact of early learning became clearer. More recently, states have risen to the challenge of organizing public and private resources, family support and connections to K-12 that must work together to strengthen child development and academic success.
A true, national conversation about early childhood education is evolving. Groups as varied as chambers of commerce, retired military, K-12 educators and foundations are lifting their voices with obvious advocates – pediatricians, child care providers, parents and grandparents – to call for greater investment in young children.
Now is a good time to make some noise. Sequestration cuts and other budget limitations mean that thousands of children will not get the critical support they need for a strong start in school and life. Georgia’s slow economic recovery makes it especially tough to take the loss of funding that contributes to the loss of nearly 100 classrooms for Head Start children and cuts in child care subsidies that shut another 100 classrooms.
THE CONVERSATION is being heard in Congress as well. Legislation is under consideration to make pre-K available to every child in the country, to serve more children younger than 3 years old, and to foster good parenting among high-risk families. Such support is essential for ensuring that all children in every state have a fair chance for success.
Here in Georgia, we have the experience, leadership and demonstrated expertise that can leverage new resources quickly. We must remember that supporting these young learners is a responsibility we all share – one that will produce long-term benefits for us all.
(The writer – director of athletics at Georgia Regents University – is a board member of Voices for Georgia’s Children, a nonprofit child policy and advocacy organization.)