Why We Need to Push for Universal Pre-K

3 years ago

With the school year well underway, how many mothers have the pre-K programs they so desperately need?

Several states have adopted universal pre-K, including Oklahoma, Georgia and Florida. And New York City is also moving ahead on this. In Oklahoma, children ages four and five are producing results in pre-writing, pre-reading and pre-arithmetic skills, as well as social skills. Oklahoma also offers care for low-income children under three, beginning in their first year of life.

President Barack Obama greets children at a day care facility adjacent to daughter Sasha's school in Bethesda, Md., following her 4th grade closing ceremony, June 9, 2011. Image Credit: Pete Souza/The White House, via Flickr

This access levels the playing field for children from impoverished homes, affording them the same educational advantages as children from wealthier homes. It's also critically important for single mothers. Having pre-K at their disposal is crucial in helping these women move ahead or at least make ends meet.

Several states, however, are dragging their heels on this issue. With more mothers working outside of the home and more than 49 percent (5.6 million) of children under three living in low-income families, quality, affordable early childhood education programs are in high demand and short supply.

Here in Denton County, Texas, for instance, there is a population of just fewer than 700,000 residents, with 49,000 being children under five. Our child care center is the only income-based program that educates and cares for children six weeks old to five years old, 11.5 hours a day, five days a week, year-round.

But we can only accommodate 76 children, and while we are expanding to serve 24 more children, it is not enough. This can be evidenced by our waiting list of 110 children that seems to grow daily with families waiting to gain access to our program.

This need is nationwide. A report released last fall by Child Care Aware America finds that in 31 states, infant care is more costly than a mid-priced state college. Without public funding and accessibility to quality programs, parents are left with no good choices, and children and families are suffering.

President Barack Obama lauded pre-K and early childhood education in his 2013 and 2014 State of the Union addresses and has a portion of the White House website devoted to the issue.

Are We There Yet?

Does this mean that collectively, as a society, we are beginning to recognize the importance of early childhood education prior to kindergarten? Will it be enough to shape public opinion, resulting in a shift in public policy and investment in early childhood programs, providing access to all children? The answer to these questions needs to be a resounding "yes."

I myself have children and I "stepped out" of the work lane to care for them when they were younger.

But in the stay-at-home mom bubble I lived in for 12 years, I was oblivious to the critical need for early childhood education and universal pre-kindergarten. Surrounded by college-educated, financially comfortable moms who chose to stay home, I viewed day care as a convenience: "My child, my responsibility," I uttered many times.

I fully came to understand the need for early childhood education after I went back to work as director of this nonprofit child care center serving low-income families. It was 6:15 a.m., still very dark outside, cold and rainy. As I pulled in front of our building, I saw a young mother pushing her infant son up the sidewalk in a stroller. After dropping him off, she would walk back to the bus stop to go to work.

The sight of that rain-drenched mother sacrificing so her son could have a better life did something to me. I realized how much this woman, whose family lived in a motel three years before, needed this access. Today, the family has a car and has moved into a new apartment. Her son has his own bedroom and is growing and learning as he should. This is just one of the many stories of hope I see daily because of the opportunity an affordable child care center offers, building healthy kids and empowering adults.

Abundant Research

The research is abundant in supporting the difference early childhood education makes in building stronger families and communities.

Birth to age five is a significant time in a child's life, when 90 percent of brain development occurs. Experiences during the early years are critical to establishing the path a child will take to social and economic well-being. Research has shown children enrolled in quality early childhood education programs benefit from improved social and emotional functioning, better nutrition and health, better preparedness for kindergarten and better success in school, lower dropout rates and less grade repetition, better verbal, intellectual and physical development than unenrolled children, and improved self-sufficiency as adults.

For those children who come from lower-income households and do not have access to a quality program, waiting until kindergarten to begin learning is too late. By providing access to high-quality programs for all children, we can bridge the achievement gap, offer opportunity and break the cycle of poverty.

With the need for child care so apparent and the benefits so great, it's time to make this a priority. When children are getting positive experiences, fostering interactions and learning activities in the early years, they are left with a foundation for a lifetime of learning, health, happiness and success.

By investing in children at birth, we can build a stronger, better educated, more productive, innovative and self-sufficient nation. What are we waiting for?

Wendy McGee is executive director of Fred Moore Day Nursery School in Denton, Texas, and a fellow in the Public Voices Fellowship of The OpEd Project at Texas Woman's University.

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