First-Focus-Blog-FamilyEconTNIn America, a child’s ability should determine his or her future, not the circumstances of his or her birth. But today, a family’s income has everything to do with whether children succeed. President Barack Obama’s proposal to make high-quality pre-K more affordable and more available can give all kids the chance to reach their potential.

By age five just 48 percent of poor children in America are ready for school, compared to three-fourths of children from families with moderate and high incomes. Most schools will struggle to help children from low-income families catch up to children from more affluent households. By 3rd grade, 80 percent of low-income children are not proficient in reading.

Once kids fall behind, the research shows they’re much less likely to catch up. A student from a poor family who cannot read on grade level by third grade is 13 times less likely to graduate from high school.

The reason is obvious: money. Families with higher incomes have many advantages. One important advantage is the ability to afford quality early childhood education. The National Institute for Early Education Research estimated last year that approximately 9 out of 10 children in households with incomes in the top 20 percent send their children to pre-K. Some families take advantage of publicly funded programs, but if they are not available they have the means to pay for it on their own. In fact, the vast majority of higher income families pay to send their children to private pre-K, where they receive instruction focused on developing the cognitive, social and emotional skills kids need to enter kindergarten ready to learn.

But one year of privately-funded pre-K costs about as much as one year of college tuition at a public university. So it’s no surprise that just 7 percent of children in households with incomes in the bottom 20 percent send their children to private pre-K. While many children in low-income families attend Head Start or other publicly-funded pre-K, these programs don’t have the funding they need to serve all the children who qualify, so when it’s not available, these kids are left behind.

Children in middle income families also feel the impact. Their families’ incomes are too high to qualify for Head Start, but nowhere near enough to cover the high cost of private pre-K. As a result, just under half of middle-income children attend publicly-subsidized pre-K other than Head Start — usually financed through individual states or school districts. But these opportunities don’t have the funding they need either, so many of these children are also left behind.

Beyond the children and families directly affected, these inequities hurt all of us. They strain our public education system, making K-12 education more about helping kids who are behind catch up than challenging all students to pursue academic excellence. And, when kids fail to reach their potential, the result is lower lifelong productivity and higher taxpayer costs for law enforcement, health care, and welfare.
The President has proposed a bold plan to build an early childhood education system that lives up to the core American ideal that a child’s future should not be decided by the circumstances of his or her birth.

We welcome and encourage a vigorous debate over how to get there. But solving this problem boils down to two relatively straightforward requirements. We must make pre-K more affordable and, thereby, more available. High-quality early education doesn’t matter if it doesn’t reach the kids who need it most – including the middle-income kids who are left out. We must also ensure the quality of pre-K educational opportunities, so all kids get the most educational benefit and taxpayers get real value for their dollar.

We can no longer ignore the evidence that some of the most important learning takes place in the years before kindergarten. That expensive delusion has already cost children and taxpayers too much.

A 21st century education system must be built on the solid foundation provided by high-quality early childhood education for every child. Laying that foundation is not only an economic imperative. Because it is a question of basic fairness, solving this problem is an economic and moral imperative.