A new report  from the Center for the Next Generation and the Center for American Progress — “The Competition that Really Matters: Comparing U.S., Chinese, and Indian Investments in the Next Generation Workforce” – raises provocative questions about the United States’ global competitiveness. And early education is among the issues the report addresses.

“Half of U.S. children get no early childhood education,” the report notes, “and we have no national strategy to increase enrollment.”

In China, 51% of 3- and 4-year-olds have at least a year of publicly funded preschool, up from  9% in 1980. And China has set an ambitious national goal of enrolling 40 million children in preschool by 2020 – or 50% more than are currently enrolled. It also aims to provide 70% of its young children with three years of preschool by 2020, according to the report.

“Total state funding for pre-k programs (in the U.S.) decreased by $60 million in 2011, after decreasing by $30 million the previous year,” the report states. “So just as China is ramping up its investments in early childhood education,… the United States is reducing investment in preschool learning and has set no clear national goals to counter China with a bold plan to increase access and improve quality of early learning in our country.”

To be sure, India and China have large numbers of families living in deep poverty, and there are questions about the quality of programming in both countries. Yet, the report notes, the sheer size of the population in India and China should give U.S. policymakers pause and reinforce the urgency of ensuring that all of our children have the tools they need to participate in an increasingly sophisticated global economy.

For instance, the report notes that almost 30 million Chinese children attend at least one year of preschool, up from 25 million in 1997. In the U.S., according to the report, 3.5 million children attend preschool. In 2009, 27 million Chinese children – or three-quarters of eligible children — attended kindergarten, double the 13 million who attended in 1984. On the spending side, China spent $2.1 billion on kindergarten and pre-kindergarten in 2006, up from $1.1 billion in 2001. Spending on primary grade education jumped to $40.3 billion in 2006 from $22.2 billion in 2001, according to the report.

“Though it faces serious foundational challenges, Chinese leaders are aware of and are devising strategies to address them,” the report notes. “U.S. policymakers should not doubt China’s ability to overcome even these very serious problems, and must take action to prepare the United States for the competitive challenges that even an unequally growing China pose.”

The differences in population size are equally staggering in India, where, the report notes, 135.6 million children were enrolled in grades 1-5 in 2009-10, compared with 20.2 million in the United States. “While the United States is also successfully enrolling all of its students in primary school, the number of children attending grades 1 through 5 in India is three times the total number of students enrolled in kindergarten through 12th grades in America,” the report states. The 38 million Indian children with at least some pre-kindergarten education make India home to “the world’s largest early childhood program,” the report notes. However, it continues, quality is so uneven that many children enter school “without even a basic understanding of numbers, letters, or other basic learning skills” and its “efforts to create a high-quality early education system pale in comparison to the national muscle and resources used to ensure the constitutionally guaranteed six years of free public elementary education.” India aims to increase the proportion of children who enter school ready to succeed from 26 percent to 60 percent by 2018. Still, the report notes, “Indian colleges were already awarding 600,000 more bachelor’s degrees than U.S. colleges as of 2003.”

Ann O’Leary, director of the Children and Families Program at the Center for the Next Generation, singles out China in a Huffington Post piece on the report.

“By virtue of its size and population, China stands as the supreme challenger to the United States in global economic leadership. Recognizing the need to take greater advantage of its people as a national asset, China is now making it possible for much larger numbers of youngsters to start their education early as preparation for the in-demand job opportunities of the years ahead,” O’Leary writes. “We have reached a point in the United States where short-term, band-aid approaches to preparing our kids properly for the years ahead aren’t enough. They’re like putting sand in potholes. We need bold, aggressive, long-term, sustainable solutions that contemplate U.S. leadership for years to come. It all starts with early education. Just ask China.”