America's Priorities: Making Early Education Matter

01/24/2011 09:15 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

We hear politicians talk about priorities all the time, especially during times leading up to elections and most passionately, immediately preceding elections, but once elected, the priorities suddenly shift and I wonder if they were ever really there in the first place.

In the field of education, the mantra of "children first" is drummed into us beginning in college and continuing throughout our careers. We live and breathe it daily, in the classroom trenches, shopping at educational craft stores and Target on the weekends, grading papers and communicating with parents via e-mail on evenings after-school and lately, even during sleep, my dreams are populated with school issues.

I cannot stop thinking about budget cuts, increasing class size, test scores impacting evaluations and a myriad of challenges my students face that are beyond my control. I know I am not alone. These topics are discussed in the lunchroom, at professional development meetings, staff meetings and now thankfully, openly on this blog.

All the desire teachers possess for their students' success cannot compete with the power wielded by those with the legislative red pen in hand, striking education budgets without once considering the ramifications of the cuts to the small people inhabiting our deteriorating schools.

How many politicians send their children to public schools? A recent blog post on TakePart, entitled Public Servants and Private Schools: Where Top Politicians Send Their Kids, lists some examples and a poll conducted by the Heritage Foundation gives percentages. Perhaps I would believe the sincerity of our elected officials if they really put their own children in our schools and saw first-hand the huge need for funding.

Students face internal and external challenges and the recent rash of school violence is a grim reflection of the pressure cooker we are creating by ignoring the social, emotional and educational needs of children in favor of balancing budgets. I recently posted "Start at the Beginning," in which I suggested five ideas for change in education. These are not new or revolutionary ideas, but meant to get a conversation started and bring attention to what many of us in the field of education see as challenges and solutions to our current downward trend in education. As comments came in, I realized I needed to elaborate.

"Start young" was my first suggestion because we know that this is a key to success. Beginning in 1965, Head Start provided early education that dramatically changed education opportunities for low-income families. Today, more research than ever concludes that small class size and individual attention in early education can dramatically influence a student's chances for success.

How can this be accomplished? The education budget priority must include class sizes based on educational research, not simply political convenience. Another component to accomplish a lower ratio in the classroom is to provide a qualified and trained classroom aide for all primary classrooms. In the early years of Title 1 and Bilingual Education, classrooms regularly had full-time, trained aides. The 10:1 ratio could help provide a safety net for students at risk of failure, those struggling and additionally, those not struggling, but thriving and able to have challenges added to their curriculum.

Many will ask for specific funding ideas and claim we cannot afford to fund this reform measure. I insist that we cannot afford not to fund early education. We might have to divert tax monies, but one way or another, we will pay for these children. I propose that we pay for early education instead of later intervention or worse, prison.