“So, tonight I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America.” President Barack Obama
In last week’s State of the Union Address, President Obama proposed one of the most important and proven strategies for expanding educational opportunity and closing the achievement gap in our nation’s public schools -- universal quality pre-school that is affordable and accessible to all. We applaud the President for making this a national priority. The National Urban League and many others have long understood that if America is to achieve the vision of a globally competitive nation, we can no longer accept that the quality of education is based primarily on your zip code or the size of your bank account.
The availability of early learning opportunities for children is a significant predictor of the level of achievement they will attain throughout their academic careers. Early interventions for the youngest learners also provide a critical ladder to responsible adulthood and the jobs of the future. Many affluent parents spend tens of thousands of dollars each year to provide quality pre-school experiences for their children, an expense which most middle and working class families simply cannot afford. And because of funding inequities, many urban students spend their entire educational lives playing catch-up in run-down schools with over-burdened teachers. This inequality is not only imperilling the futures of millions of public school children, it is jeopardizing America’s ability to develop a workforce capable of competing in the 21st century global marketplace.
As Jonathan Kozol wrote eight years ago in his landmark book, The Shame of a Nation, “There is something deeply hypocritical in a society that holds an inner-city child only eight years old, accountable for her performance on a high stakes standardized exam but does not hold the high officials of our government accountable for robbing her of what they gave their own kids six or seven years before.”
President Obama proposes to level the playing field. He envisions a continuum of high-quality early learning for a child – beginning at birth and continuing to age five. In a cost sharing partnership with states, government funded pre-school would be extended to all four year-olds from low and moderate-income families below 200% of poverty. The President’s proposal comes as the March 1 “sequestration” budget cut is fast approaching. If Congress and the White House fail to come to an agreement, our economy could face another recession and the education of many urban children will be further weakened. According to the White House, 70,000 young children would be shut out of Head Start and as many as 10,000 teachers could lose their jobs. We must not let that happen.
Last year, with the release of the National Urban League’s eight--point plan to Educate, Employ and Empower, we made the point that any serious discussion about the creation of jobs and economic opportunity must account for the basic shortcomings of our current national approach to education, from early childhood to adulthood and beyond. We said that robust early childhood education for every child must be an essential part of the solution. President Obama agrees. We urge Congress to act quickly to make it a reality.
Marc Morial is the president and CEO of the National Urban League.