Image Source: U.S. Department of Education
Image Source: U.S. Department of Education


Across the country, elected officials are calling for more preschool programs. Mayors, governors, members of Congress, and the president are calling for higher quality and more access.

Despite this rhetoric, what’s missing is a strong financial investment in early education and care.

The result: “too many children enter kindergarten a year or more behind their classmates in academic and social-emotional skills. For some children, starting out school from behind can trap them in a cycle of continuous catch-up in their learning,” according to “A Matter of Equity: Preschool in America,” a new report from the U.S. Department of Education.

To rectify this situation, the report calls on Congress to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) by, in part, creating “real equity of opportunity, starting with our youngest children.” 

The report adds: “Across the nation, 59 percent of 4-year olds – or six out of every 10 children – are not enrolled in publicly funded preschool programs through state preschool, Head Start, and special education preschool services. Even fewer are enrolled in the highest-quality programs.”

The report draws on data from the National Institute for Early Education Research’s yearbook, The State of Preschool 2013. And according to these numbers, Massachusetts lags behind the country: 75 percent of our 4-year-olds are not enrolled in a publicly funded preschool program.

“Children’s access to preschool also varies significantly by family income level and the region where children live,” the report says. “As of the 2012–13 school year, 40 states and the District of Columbia offer voluntary, state preschool programs for some children. While these states enroll a total of 1.1 million 4-year-olds in state preschool, enrollment in individual state programs significantly varies.”

“For example, Florida, Oklahoma, Vermont, and the District of Columbia served more than 70 percent of their 4-year-olds in state-funded preschool, whereas 11 states with programs served fewer than 10 percent of 4-year-olds. These states are: Alabama; Alaska; Arizona; Delaware; Minnesota; Missouri; Nevada; Ohio; Oregon; Rhode Island; and Washington. Local Head Start programs serve another approximately half million 4-year-olds from the lowest-income families.”

“For Latino children, the unmet need is especially great. While Latinos are the fastest growing and largest minority group in the United States, making up a quarter of 3- and 4-year-olds, Latinos demonstrate the lowest preschool participation rates of any major ethnicity or race,” according to a Department of Education blog post.

Inconsistent access to preschool ignores compelling evidence. As the report says, “Advances in neuroscience and research have helped to demonstrate the benefits of quality early education for young children and that the early years are a critical period in children’s learning and development, providing the necessary foundation for more advanced skills.

“For example, children’s language skills from age 1 to 2 are predictive of their pre-literacy skills at age five. A robust body of research shows that children who participate in high-quality preschool programs have better health, social-emotional, and cognitive outcomes than those who do not participate. The gains are particularly powerful for children from low-income families and those at risk for academic failure who, on average, start kindergarten 12 to 14 months behind their peers in pre-literacy and language skills.”

In a statement, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says, “We’ve made key investments in early learning, but we need to do more. Expanding access to high-quality preschool within the reauthorization of ESEA will narrow achievement gaps, and reflect the real, scientific understanding that learning begins long before a child enters kindergarten.”

The report also includes a statement from Procter & Gamble CEO John Pepper, who says that early childhood programs help fuel the workforce. He adds, “Early childhood development is the compelling economic, social, and moral issue of our time… It helps provide all children with the opportunities they deserve to develop their natural abilities.”

The report concludes:

“Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Elementary and Secondary Education Act into law. President Johnson believed that ‘full educational opportunity’ should be ‘our first national goal.’ With the pending reauthorization of ESEA, Congress has an opportunity to take the next step in supporting greater investment in high-quality preschool for generations to come.

“Without a deliberate focus on children’s preschool experiences in our nation’s education law, we run the risk of limiting opportunity for a generation of children by allowing educational gaps to take root before kindergarten. As a nation, we must commit to ensuring that all young people – particularly our most vulnerable – are prepared for a future where they can fulfill their greatest potential through a strong education.”

To accomplish this, state and federal government officials should increase their investments in early education and care. The country needs sustainable progress that will help our youngest children succeed.