04/23/2011 11:13 am ET Updated Jun 23, 2011

The Kids Win One in Washington

When it comes to kids' issues, the rule of thumb in Washington is usually "children last." Not this time: While the recent budget deal trimmed many federal programs, there's actually more money going to two signature children's initiatives, Head Start and child care.

Head Start, the last surviving veteran of the War on Poverty, will get an additional $340 million, enabling it to keep serving the children that were added to the rolls with the stimulus money. The budget for child care was boosted by $100 million. How this happened is a mystery, though the fact that the President has a keen sense of the importance of early education may be part of the explanation.

Most of the child care money is intended to improve the quality of care, which can charitably be described as uneven. Policy-makers habitually treat early education as something entirely different from child care, thinking of the latter as merely baby-sitting, but that makes little sense. Kids don't turn on the learning switch the minute they set foot in preschool and switch it off as soon as they're in day care. They're inveterate explorers, little Lewises and Clarks. Whether the sign on the door reads "child care" or "preschool" they're perpetually inquisitive. The more their minds are challenged, and their social and emotional skills nurtured, the better off they'll be -- not just as toddlers but literally for the rest of their lives.

No sooner was the 2011 budget agreement approved by Congress than the far bigger fight over the 2012 budget began. Children's advocates will be in the midst of the fray, demanding more money -- rightly so, since youngsters are victimized by un-benign political neglect. But as the negotiators of the 2011 budget seem to have understood, money that is spent patching weak programs won't do the trick. What's really needed, as I argue in Kids First, is a cradle-to-college system of support: evidence-based and family-friendly programs that draw on the talents and resources of public and non-profit partners, and that are open to middle class as well as poor families. The right standard is the Golden Rule applied to policy: every child deserves what you want for a child you love.

Another classic and wrongheaded distinction is the bright line that separates preschool and K-12 policies. The best models for early education are also the smartest strategies for school-age youngsters, modified to take account of developmental differences. This is how the budget negotiators see things: early learning has been placed front and center in the competition for 2012 Race to the Top education dollars.

There's much to dislike about the political fratricide taking place in Washington these days, and it's fair to characterize the GOP plan passed by the House of Representatives as truly anti-kid. But this new era of belt-tightening can be used by the advocates as the occasion for rethinking what kinds of support kids need the most. That means advocating for game-changing initiatives such as good early education. It also means discarding ideas that have proven to be ineffective. That's far harder, but if the advocates can agree on what's most important the kids will be the big winners.