Middle-Income Families Can Slip Through Cracks of ECE Policy

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Early childhood education is again on the minds of our elected officials.

Last month, the House passed the Early Learning Challenge Fund, which gives states a chance at $8 billion in competitive grants to fund early childhood education. Soon, the Senate will consider the same bill aimed at advancing early learning for states that demonstrate a commitment to innovation and collaboration in early childhood education. At the Denver Preschool Program, we believe the Early Learning Challenge Fund is a giant step in the right direction toward securing our children’s long-term successes and future triumphs.

Legislation like this could not come at a better time for conflicted parents who wish to provide their children with a preschool education but do not have the resources to do so. Faced with today’s harsh economic realities, families of all income levels have been forced to tighten the household belt – and it’s no surprise that middle-income families often take the hardest hit. Sandwiched between the thresholds of qualifying for public assistance programs and complete financial independence, these families are frequently lost in the gap.

This seems to be the case on both a national and statewide level. Of the 38 states that fund preschool programs, 20 use household income as a means to determine eligibility for financial assistance. In Colorado, The Denver Post reported as recently as June 2009 that families have declined pay increases at work to stay eligible for help.

In spite of this limited access to public financial resources, the middle-income demographic continues to push for solutions. During the 2008 voting season a national survey of registered voters found that, of all income groups, middle-income families were among the most supportive of publicly funded, voluntary preschool programs for all children. For now, however, America’s middle class seems to be suffering the brunt of what’s lacking in our nation’s early childhood education policy.

A recent report from Pre-K Now, a national organization aimed at promoting early childhood education, suggests this trend is a result of two misguided assumptions. The first asserts that these families can already afford early education without assistance. As someone who has seen and heard countless stories from families caught in the middle-class squeeze, this assumption could not be any less true. In fact, I’ve seen firsthand that Denver families from all income levels are struggling in this economy. The second assumption maintains that these children “don’t need and wouldn’t benefit significantly” from early childhood education. Again, this assumption is off the mark. Studies show that 80 percent of brain development occurs before the age of five, and early childhood education has been proven to provide numerous academic, social and economic benefits later in life for those who attend preschool.

Nevertheless, these misconceptions exist and our nation’s middle class feels the effects daily – especially in the realm of education. The same report from Pre-K Now notes that about one in three preschool children from middle-income families do not know the alphabet (compared with only one in six children from upper-income families.) Moreover, during the 2005-06 school year, more than half of all dropouts were from middle-income families – further illustrating the importance of reaching children at a young age.

While our nation’s leaders continue to look for ways to alleviate the stress of the middle-class squeeze, we should applaud the citizens of Denver for having the foresight to make quality early childhood education accessible to the families in our own community through the Denver Preschool Program.

Approved by voters in November 2006, the Denver Preschool Program, or DPP, provides tuition credits for families living in our city to send their children to high-quality preschool. Most importantly, this financial assistance is available to all Denver families – regardless of household income – helping ease the financial burden on our city’s middle class.

DPP’s focus goes beyond simply enrolling children in preschool. Unlike many pre-k programs that place emphasis on seating kids in the preschool classroom, DPP aims to ensure our children have access to high-quality programs that will prepare them for a lifetime of learning. To achieve this, DPP has instituted a process for reviewing licensed preschool providers in its network, assigning ratings and working with those providers to devise plans for improving the quality of their programs. Additionally, DPP measures the program’s success by evaluating the developmental outcomes of each child as he or she progresses through the educational system. In this way, DPP remains accountable to the community not only for preparing young children for kindergarten and beyond, but also for improving the overall quality of early education offerings throughout our city.

While DPP’s program evaluation is in the early stages, the preliminary results indicate DPP is providing much needed support to families, children and preschool providers. More than two-thirds of families surveyed reported that DPP helped their children maintain continuous enrollment in preschool, despite challenging economic times. Children participating in DPP demonstrated significant progress in both academic and socio-emotional development during their preschool year – with academic gains above and beyond what would be expected based on normal development. And nearly 30 preschool providers engaged for the first time in a quality improvement progress to improve overall quality of their preschools.

These findings are promising, and give us great confidence that Denver is establishing an early educational system that grants the same access to high-quality preschool regardless of a family’s socio-economic status. It can’t be overstated that this investment in early education is an investment in our community’s long-term success.

William Butler Yeats wrote that education is “not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.” The Denver Preschool Program was built on the premise that if we ensure that fire is ignited at a very young age in each and every one of our children – rich, poor and in-between – it will burn for the benefit of generations to come.