THE BLOG
03/05/2014 09:13 am ET Updated May 05, 2014

Investing in High-Quality State Pre-kindergarten Wouldn't Pay? Really????

A few high-profile but misleading commentaries over the past few months have cast unwarranted doubt on the proposal by President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to support state pre-k programs and make them accessible to, at the least, all low-income young children. Recent debates between the Brookings Institution's Brown Center for Education director Grover "Russ" Whitehurst and Upjohn Institute economist Timothy Bartik illustrate the degree to which this argument has spread, and to which opponents of the proposal will use irrelevant data and studies to make their points.

Sometimes, though, something provides a way to break through all the hype about what the "scholarly research" really means. In this case, a beautiful little film out of Nebraska, Ready for Kindergarten: the Impact of Early Childhood Education, does just that.

True, the film is anchored by just that kind of early childhood scholar, in this case, Dr. Samuel Meisels. Dr. Meisel's resume includes high-profile professorships at both Tufts University and the University of Michigan, after which he led the Chicago-based Erikson Institute and became, in 2012, the founding executive director of the University of Nebraska's Buffett Early Childhood Institute. In this case, however, the breadth of his knowledge of poverty-related early childhood gaps in learning, and the mechanisms by which quality early interventions bridge them, are hard to dispute. As are the accolades from Harvard Center for the Developing Child Director Jack Shonkoff, who says: "The selection of Sam Meisels as the founding director assures that this promise will be realized not only for Nebraska but for the nation as a whole. Congratulations to the University of Nebraska for this inspiring appointment."

It is the rest of the film, however, that really puts to rest any doubt that high-quality pre-kindergarten programs that start early and engage parents can make a world of difference not only for disadvantaged young children, but for their families, their schools, and their communities. Educare of Lincoln Executive Director Julia Dadds explains in detail how investments in quality birth-to-5 programs fill gaps opened by poverty and lack of parental education every step of the way. She also makes clear how critical the "details" are - class size, teacher qualifications, curriculum, and other resources - and how parents can become true partners with the right supports.

Nebraska State Senator John Harms argues forcefully that blaming teachers for the gaps children bring with them when they enter kindergarten is unfair and counterproductive. His passionate call for public investments to close those gaps is supported strongly by Crete Public Schools Superintendent Kyle McGowan. McGowan reports that scores on the DIBELS, a respected early literacy test, among his school's most disadvantaged low-income and English Language Learner students who attended the pre-k program are higher than those of their advantaged peers. "Whatever we were doing, it got us exactly where we wanted to be."

Even more powerful are the voices of parents. At Franklin Elementary School in Omaha, nearly every child qualifies for subsidized meals. Father Anthony Cook explains eloquently why, while he "respects" day care, he and his wife chose to enroll their 4-year-old daughter in the school's Head Start program because it is doing a wonderful job of preparing her for school, a job that is enhanced by their reading to her every day. Karla Andozola expresses amazement and gratitude at Lexington Public Schools' Early Learning Academy's ability to break through her daughter's shyness, help her make friends and form comfortable relationships with teachers, and greatly boost her English skills, "another of our goals, because at home we mainly speak to her in Spanish." "This place is not a day care. You can call it an educational palace," says Mohamed Amar of the Lincoln Educare Center where his daughters learn what they need to be ready for school, and he and his wife Iman receive just the right supports they need to enhance and sustain those gains.

As with any well-made early childhood film, the children themselves tell a powerful story. We can see how their play, their exploration of their classrooms and, through books, the broader world, their interactions with each other and with caring, qualified, attentive adults, and their programs' support for their parents make a difference now that will last a lifetime.

Buffett Early Childhood Fund President Jessie Rasmussen succinctly delivers the bottom line: "I would ask everybody, 'what would you want for your child?' And what you want for your child should be there for every child." As the filmmakers document, however, only 37 percent of Nebraska's low-income children are currently enrolled in preschool. The same is true in most states across the country. It's hard to see how we can make good on that golden rule so long as we continue to argue about whether the policies needed to make it happen are worth the investment.