March 9 — 12:00 am, 2006

Valuing quality child care

It’s time to recognize the importance of high-quality early childhood education to the success of our educational system as a whole.

There is a solid base of research telling us the benefits of preschool education. A recent report by W. Steven Barnett of the National Institute for Early Education Research offers an impressive list of documented benefits of high-quality pre-K: “higher test scores, better social skills, less grade repetition and special education, higher graduation rates, increased earnings, less crime, and less teen pregnancy, abortion and smoking.”

We also have powerful local evidence on the value of preschool from a comprehensive study of Philadelphia kindergartners. Research from John Fantuzzo at the University of Pennsylvania has found that attending formal, center-based preschool not only made kindergarten students better performers, but those benefits carried over at least through third grade. Those who had formal preschool experiences do better on achievement tests and are also less likely to have attendance and behavior problems. Children facing risk factors such as poverty, lead poisoning, or maltreatment are less likely than their peers to suffer academic setbacks if they had attended a preschool program.

The benefits of high-quality early childhood education, while greatest for children living in poverty, are significant for children of all social classes. When child care and preschool are done well, they provide a safe environment that stimulates a child’s mental and physical abilities, nurtures emotional and social development, and builds a strong foundation for academic success. Investing in these environments is not an “entitlement program” for the poor; it is a sound policy strategy for which there should be a clear consensus at all levels of government.

Government has a critical role to play in early childhood education – not only when it comes to providing resources to support professional teaching staff and well-equipped classrooms, but also in ensuring equity of access to quality care.

The good news at both the state and local level is the signs that those responsible for early childhood education understand and are responding to the challenge.

As a state that until two years ago put no money into preschool at all, Pennsylvania still has a lot of catching up to do. But Governor Ed Rendell has made a substantial investment of state funds in Head Start; Accountability Block Grants cover the costs of full-day kindergarten or preschool for increasing numbers of children; and initiatives like Keystone STARS increase public awareness of and accountability for child care quality.

Locally, the School District has committed operating funds to increasing the number of preschool slots and has shifted resources into ensuring that classrooms are led by well-trained teachers who receive high-quality professional development. The District’s work has been furthered by area foundations, which are investing heavily in the creation of new models and strategies for early childhood education.

The bad news is that all those gains can easily be undermined if the federal government devalues the needs of young children. And tragically, in this era of intense focus on national security needs, neither the Bush administration nor Congress has made it a priority to invest in the safety and security of one of our most precious and fragile resources – our young children.

On the heels of a Congressional vote to cut child care assistance, health care access, and other needed supports from hundreds of thousands of children from low-income working families, the President’s budget proposal for the coming year loudly and clearly reinforced that approach:

  • By freezing funding for Head Start, the Bush budget could mean 19,000 fewer available slots for children in the coming year.
  • By cutting spending on Child Care and Development block grants, which provide child care subsidies to low-income working families and families in which a parent is in a welfare-to-work program, the federal government projects over five years to reduce the number of American children eligible for subsidies by 400,000.
  • By eliminating the “Even Start” family literacy program, freezing spending for special education in the early years, and eliminating the federal grants to states for teacher recruitment and preparation, the administration again displays its disregard for the needs of young children.

The President and his allies in Congress seem to operate in a bubble on any number of issues. Grasping the need to invest in high-quality early childhood education is no exception.

Now more than ever, it is critical that we speak out for investments in more quality choices and increased access to those already available. A good place to start is by contacting our representatives in Congress (see “Who ya gonna call?”)

Parents are a great unharnessed force for quality and equity in child care services. All of us together must reassert the value we place on quality, caring programs for young children by encouraging strong local and state efforts and holding our federal government accountable for its misguided priorities.

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