Increase access to quality preschool

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The following op-ed is cross-posted from The Hill

By Arne Duncan and Reps. Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.) and Bobby Scott (D-VA.)

Increase access to quality preschool

The foundation of a thriving middle class relies on a great education for every child, beginning in the early years. Across the country, there’s a growing understanding that, if our nation’s children are to fulfill their potential, we must expand educational opportunity, starting with our youngest learners.

Unfortunately, millions of children in our nation — especially the most vulnerable — are cut off from quality preschool. The United States ranks 31 out of 39 among countries within the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development for preschool enrollment for 4-year-olds. For children in this country who do attend preschool, quality varies widely; high-quality programs, which can support and accelerate children’s academic and socio-emotional growth, are least available to children from low- and moderate-income families.

A new report from the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University finds that state-funded preschool programs have the potential to close opportunity gaps in early education, but the report also indicates states need help to better reach this goal.

The NIEER finds about 1.3 million children were enrolled in state-funded preschool programs for the 2013-2014 year, representing an increase of more than 8,300 children over the previous school year. This is the largest number of children in state-funded preschool ever recorded. Despite this welcome sign of improvement after years with little or no progress, this figure represents less than 30 percent of all 4-year-olds in the country.

At the current growth rate, it would take about 75 years for states to enroll just 50 percent of their 4-year-olds in preschool and 150 years to reach 70 percent enrollment. In the nine states that do not fund preschool at all, it would take even longer.

We can’t afford to wait when it comes to providing children with a strong start in school and in life — the costs are too high. Numerous studies have shown a clear return on investment for every public dollar spent on high-quality preschool through a reduced need for spending on other services, such as remedial education, grade retention and special education, as well as increased productivity and earnings for children when they become adults.

Some states recently took initiative and increased access to high-quality preschool for more children, especially those from low-income families. In Oklahoma, for example, the state and local educational agencies share the costs of providing preschool to all 4-year-olds through a formula similar to K-12 education. Such examples, however, are the exception, underscoring the need for federal support for state efforts.

Across the country, we must commit to expanding access to high-quality early learning to give all children the start they need to succeed in school, get good jobs, earn higher wages and support stable, thriving families of their own.

President Obama has made it a priority to help states expand high-quality early learning. His fiscal 2016 budget request includes $750 million to increase the Preschool Development Grants Program, which helps states expand quality programs in high-need communities and build or enhance their infrastructure to provide preschool.

There is a huge unmet need for early learning — just half of the 36 states that applied for Preschool Development Grants last year were funded due to limited congressional appropriations. The awards, granted to 18 states, will reach more than 33,000 additional children in 200 high-need communities, where families have had little or no access to affordable, high-quality preschool.

The Preschool Development Grants are a down payment on addressing the unmet need for our children. So, too, is the Strong Start for America’s Children Act, a bipartisan bill that would give states the resources they need to ensure quality preschool for all 4-year-olds from low- to moderate-income families, as well as supports for younger children, including children with disabilities. This legislation has significant support in the House and Senate, and would help states make bold investments in our nation’s next generation of learners through an innovative and flexible state-federal partnership.

Ensuring our children receive a strong start in life is more than just an educational and moral imperative — it is smart policy.

A growing bipartisan movement is happening at the federal, state and local levels to increase access to quality early education to make our economy more competitive and ensure each child has the opportunity to reach his or her full potential. A diverse coalition of leaders in the business, military, law enforcement and public servant arenas are coming together to say this is the right thing for our country. Unless Congress acts, however, we will never accomplish this goal. Let’s put our children first.

Duncan is the ninth U.S. secretary of Education, serving since 2009. Hanna represents New York’s 22nd Congressional District and has served in the House since 2011. He sits on the Small Business and the Transportation committees. Scott has represented Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District since 1993. He is ranking member on the Education and the Workforce Committee. Hanna and Scott have introduced the Strong Start for America’s Children Act.