It goes without saying in education circles that the earlier a child acquires language and literacy skills the better. Toddlers who grow up in vocabulary-poor environments, often economically poor and minority families, find themselves far behind their more affluent classmates in kindergarten. If they don't catch up by third grade, it's almost impossible to get them through the public education system without serious and costly intervention.
That proclamation is the easy part. It's much more difficult to create a nation of ready-to-learn kindergarteners. Oklahoma and Florida lead the states in terms of enrolling four-year-olds in state-funded pre-K programs, with more than 70 percent of those kids in some form of pre-school. The national average is only 28 percent. Head Start, which is federally funded, enrolls about 1.1 million kids. The Annie E. Casey Foundation estimates that since 2005, more than half of the country's three- and four-year olds were not enrolled in any kind of pre-school or nursery school.
Obviously, this is a problem--one that lots of education organizations are tackling. The NAACP recently released an education report calling for universal pre-K. "Regrettably, for many low-income children of color, introduction to formal schooling is a traumatic experience," the report said. Unlike many school-related problems, this one has an easy fix--just give those kids high-quality pre-school. The only trouble is that it costs money, and NAACP is pleading for state governments to at least protect existing funding as they deal with budget woes.
On the federal level, Head Start is one of the programs that would be subject to automatic cuts in a few months if lawmakers don't figure out how to stave off the "sequester" that was part of the 2010 debt ceiling deal. The National Head Start Association says the cut--almost $600 million--would drop 200,000 kids from the program.
Not everyone agrees with the concept of universal pre-K. In his 2009 book Reroute the Preschool Juggernaut, Thomas B. Fordham Institute President Chester Finn (a contributor to this blog) argues that it would be far more effective to target scarce resources to the most at-risk kids early in their lives, perhaps even before birth. A widespread skimpy program for all four-year-olds doesn't do much for anyone except, perhaps, offer a day-care windfall for some families.
So what do we do? Does it make sense to focus on early education in state governments, particularly when Title I funds also could be on the chopping block? What can we realistically expect our state governments to do? What can the federal government do? Is there a role for the private sector in early education? Let's not forget the parents. If there were an effective public service announcement to parents about early education, what would it say?