The back-to-school ritual leaves our youngest children behind. Federal investment in children does not start until age 5 or 6 when — ready or not — they enter kindergarten. Attitudes toward the pivotal early childhood years are shifting, and both presidential candidates should consider effective preschool programs in their domestic policy platforms.
Good care early in life helps children grow up with the skills to become tomorrow's adult workers, caregivers, taxpayers and citizens. Traditionally we have regarded the care of young children as the almost exclusive domain of parents. Yet many young parents today are stretched thin, trying to care for their children while early in their own careers and family life.
Whether a single mother working the night-shift at a fast-food restaurant or a busy executive dashing home before the child-care center closes, parents across the country struggle to balance their children's developmental needs and the demands of their employers. Too often, policy-makers view the need for child care, keeping children safe so that parents can work, as separate from preparing children to enter kindergarten ready to learn.
It is time to consolidate the existing patchwork of early-childhood policies and programs and move them forward.
What is needed is a universal, but targeted pre-school program, under which the federal government would fund a half-day of high-quality prekindergarten services for children from low-income families and a partial (one-third) federal subsidy for services to children in higher-income families. Extended-day services should be available for children of working parents.
The estimated federal cost of such a proposal, if fully funded for all 3- and 4-year-olds whose families choose to participate, would be $18 billion a year. This includes $13.3 billion for the "free" part of the preschool program, $8.6 billion for the federal share of the partly subsidized portion and $2.4 billion for "wrap-around" child care for working parents. Subtracting the $6.5 billion now provided through Head Start yields the $18 billion figure in new costs.
We know through rigorous evaluations that children who participate in effectively designed preschool programs achieve more in elementary school, are less likely to be held back a grade or to need special education and are more likely to graduate from high school. Program participants, later in life, have higher rates of employment, greater earnings, lower levels of criminal activity and, in some studies, less use of welfare.
Commitment to the American ideal of equal opportunity is another strong motivation for government to invest in high-quality early education. Many of the racial, ethnic and income gaps found in school achievement begin before children set foot in kindergarten. Addressing gaps in skills at an early age gives more children from disadvantaged families a fighting chance to achieve the American dream.
A long-term goal would be to bring together the burgeoning public pre-K programs now found in most states with the existing federal Head Start program, forming an expanded national pre-K initiative that provides comprehensive, high-quality services to all 3- and 4-year-olds. Integration of Head Start with local early-childhood education programs is possible; almost one in five Head Start grantees is a local school district, and most state pre-K programs have some classrooms in non-school settings.
Some institutional, philosophical and political barriers remain to integrating the services. Initially, the federal government might have to continue separate funding streams for Head Start and the new pre-K initiative. But eventually the two programs should be fused and have a single funding stream at the federal level.
More important, the next president should offer clear directives that early investments in children have enormous payoffs. If we want all children to enter school ready to learn, public investment in children cannot wait until kindergarten.
Julia B. Isaacs is the child and family policy fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington. D.C., think tank.