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Source: Center for American Progress

What do Denmark, Iceland, the Russian Federation, Sweden and Spain have in common?  Along with 20 other countries, they all rank higher than the United States on public spending on early education as a percent of GDP.  The estimate comes from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and appears on the blog of the U.S. Department of Education.

“Compared to other developed countries, the United States lags far behind on preschool access, quality and investment,” according to a recent press release from the center for American Progress, which calls this country “a preschool caboose.”

“Only 69 percent of four-year-old American children are enrolled in early childhood education. We rank 26th in access to preschool for four-year-olds and 24th on access for three-year-olds,” according to the center’s report, titled “The United States Is Far Behind Other Countries on Pre-K.”

In addition: “Seven countries including France, Norway and Italy ensure that at least 90 percent of all three-year-olds have access to preschool. In the United States that number is barely 50 percent.”

The United States even gets beat by small countries: “In terms of per-student expenditures,” the report says, “Luxembourg leads the pack, spending more than $16,000 per child.”

Not only are other countries spending more and educating more children, many of those children are enrolling in preschool programs at a younger age.  The report points out that, “Even when children do attend preschool in the United States, they usually don’t start until age four. Most children in OECD countries, however, begin early childhood education much earlier. Denmark typically enrolls children from age one, and Belgium at about age two and a half. In fact, children in most OECD countries—including those in Estonia, Japan and Poland—begin preschool by at least age three.”

The center’s interactive map — showing global enrollments, investments and starting ages — provides visual details here.

The United States could make impressive progress.  President Obama has called for a $75 billion expansion of preschool.  Bills in Congress would do some of the same work.  But so far, these are all only proposals.

Other nations have ambitious plans. The report says that while Mexico “may need to improve preschool quality… it has committed to enrolling nearly 100 percent of its four-year-olds in preschool.”

“By 2020, China will increase preschool enrollment by 50 percent, providing access to 40 million children. This access will include three years of preschool for 70 percent of all children in China and at least two years to 80 percent of three- and four-year-olds,” the report says, drawing on research that appeared in a 2012 report from the center.

This earlier report also notes that in India, the “educational system proposes to boost the number of children who enter school ready to learn from 26 percent to 60 percent by 2018.”  And India is already competitive: “The pre-school education system, while in need of much more structure and upgrades, reaches an estimated 38 million children under six. By comparison, in the United States publicly supported pre-school education reaches about 3.5 million children ages three to five years old.”

To catch up to the rest of the developed world, the United States will have to make substantial, strategic investments in its youngest children.