Op-Ed

Ky. needs comprehensive early-childhood system

Gov. Steve Beshear shook hands with student Samuel Dennis after discussing his proposed expansion of preschool eligibility at a news conference at Dixie Magnet Elementary School in Lexington on Feb. 16
Gov. Steve Beshear shook hands with student Samuel Dennis after discussing his proposed expansion of preschool eligibility at a news conference at Dixie Magnet Elementary School in Lexington on Feb. 16 Herald-Leader

Gov. Steve Beshear stopped by Lexington's Dixie Magnet Elementary School recently to meet students and tout his proposal for expanding preschool eligibility across Kentucky by including $15 million in his state budget proposal for preschool expansion to 4,000 more Kentucky 4-year olds.

Among all the reasons this is a great idea — improved health, math skills, letters, language development and other cognitive skills — he also makes a very valid statement of fact: Scientists say that some 90 percent of brain development occurs from birth to age 3.

So explain to me once again why we're making the additional investment in 4-year-olds?

No one disputes the research that shows most human brain development happens between the time we are born and age 3, yet, once again, this is not where we focus our resources. There is also good research that shows 4-year-olds who attend high-quality preschool programs do better in school. But why do we continue to invest more money in 4-year-olds at the expense of our infants and toddlers? None of it is enough, and it seems we ought to be able to figure out how to combine our resources and get both.

As with most things though, what we know and how we respond does not always coincide.

We know that almost half of all children start school already at risk for failure.

We know low-income children in particular are likely to enter kindergarten one or two years behind in language and other important skills. We know almost one half of children in many Appalachian counties are living in poverty.

But most of all, we know this: Second only to good parenting, the quality of child care has significant impact on a child's development, early learning and propensity to succeed in life. And most of our at-risk children under the age of 6 are already in some kind of child-care setting.

The real issue is what level of quality we are willing to demand, and pay for, for all of our children from birth to age 5. And if we are willing to promote public education for 4-year-olds along with the demise of infant and toddler care — precisely what happens when we take our 4-year-olds out of private child-care centers and put them in public schools.

Not giving at-risk 4-year-olds the best possible chance at succeeding in school is wrong. Ignoring the fact that taking more and more of our youngest children and sending them to public schools decimates our private child-care system and could be catastrophic. I simply don't believe we have to choose.

Several states have recently enacted legislation to ensure comprehensive early-childhood education. Arizona, Colorado, Iowa and Oklahoma have successful multifaceted, strategic systems in place that name the No. 1 goal as commitment to high-quality early-childhood systems.

Key is the inclusion of all children from 0-5; not one of them singles out 4-year-olds or public schools. Rather, they combine public education programs and private-market child-care centers by being creative; moving teachers instead of busing our youngest children or building more classrooms, incentivizing and supporting quality child care through collaboration.

Not too many years ago, Kentucky was the first state in the nation to begin working on comprehensive early-childhood education as a system.

We were seen as innovators blending federal, state and local resources with public and private funds to improve outcomes from prenatal care to kindergarten. We have taken some steps forward, and a few back, and today, we are No. 40 nationally for child-care standards, up from No. 49 just four years ago.

Beshear is right to include this investment in our children. Let's make it a smarter investment by ensuring we use all of the resources our communities already have in place before our schools are allowed to use scarce resources to open new classrooms.

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