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America's Middle Class Promise Starts Early

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In his State of the Union address, President Obama spoke forcefully about America's basic bargain that people who work hard and shoulder their responsibilities should be able to climb into a thriving middle class. Restoring that bargain, he said, is the unfinished work of our generation.

But for millions of young children in this country, the first rung on that ladder is missing because they are cut off from the kind of early learning that would set them up for success in school -- with consequences that could last the rest of their lives. Our Administration is committed to closing that costly, unfair opportunity gap through a new plan that will deliver high-quality preschool for every American child, and enhance early learning services for children from birth through age three.

Study after study confirms what every teacher knows: young children who experience secure, stimulating environments with rich learning opportunities from an early age are better prepared to thrive in school. Indeed, both of us have watched our own children expand their worlds and their minds in the years before they entered school, whether at home or in quality early learning settings. Unfortunately, many American children don't receive these opportunities.

Fewer than three in 10 American 4-year-olds attend a high-quality preschool program filled with well-organized learning experiences, guided exploration, art, and storytelling, and led by a skilled teacher. The availability of high-quality care and educational services for infants and toddlers is even lower. And the gap is especially pronounced in low-income communities.

Our failure to ensure access to strong preschool is morally indefensible and economically counterproductive. Strong early learning can translate into school success, which can lead to college and good jobs, and ultimately a robust economy. Research shows that every public dollar spent on high-quality early childhood education returns $7 through increased productivity and savings on public assistance and criminal justice programs.

That's why President Obama has announced a comprehensive plan to help every child develop a strong foundation for future success. Recognizing that this is a time for fiscal caution, the President has been clear that, when combined with his plan for balanced deficit reduction, none of these proposals will add a dime to the deficit. But ultimately, this is an investment that we can't afford not to make. Under his plan, we will work together to:

  • Make universal, high-quality preschool available to four-year olds from low- and moderate-income families through a partnership with states, while also expanding these preschool programs to reach additional children from middle class families and providing incentives for full-day kindergarten. This new partnership would provide incentives for states to cover all families who want to send their children to preschool and offer high-quality preschool, with low class sizes, qualified teachers, and stimulating learning experiences.
  • Launch a new Early Head Start-Child Care partnership to significantly expand the availability of high-quality early learning opportunities for infants and toddlers.
  • Expand highly effective, voluntary home visiting programs where nurses, family educators and social workers connect low-income families to health, social, and educational supports.

These actions build on steps the Administration has already taken to boost early learning for our most vulnerable children, from improving accountability and quality of Head Start services to encouraging more systemic policies and investments that will improve the quality and effectiveness of early education through the Race to the Top - Early Learning Challenge, which rewards states that raise the bar on quality and provide links with health, nutrition, mental health, and family supports.

As we move forward with this economically vital effort, we can look to states that have shown the way. In Michigan and Massachusetts, for example, Governors Rick Snyder and Deval Patrick have made expanding access to preschool programs a priority. In Alabama, Governor Robert Bentley has proposed new resources to rapidly expand early education. These leaders represent a bipartisan consensus that America can't win the race for the future by holding back children at the starting line.

Unfortunately, the blunt, arbitrary cuts that Congress allowed to go into effect through sequestration will do exactly that. President Obama has put forward a balanced plan to replace those cuts and reduce the deficit, which includes spending cuts along entitlement and tax reform. If Congress fails to compromise, up to 70,000 students could be dropped from Head Start and up to 30,000 low-income children would be left without child care subsidies. These cuts jeopardize our children's futures. America, which now ranks 28th globally in early childhood enrollment, risks falling even further behind the rest of the world in preparing our children for school.

Early childhood education is one of the best investments we can make in America's future. Now is the time to redouble our efforts, not cut back. Doing right by our youngest children is essential to America's middle-class promise. We look forward to working together to make it happen.