While a few of us think of October as the month that Ronald Reagan designated as the Head Start Awareness Month, for voters, candidates and media October looms as the month of electoral debates -- a time when choices are defined by candidates, analyzed by media, and made in the minds and hearts of voters.
In the early 1980's when the nation was rocked by banking and savings and loans meltdowns, and the unemployment rate was above 11 percent, President Reagan saw clearly that hope for American economic revival required keeping the window of opportunity open for all Americans. He made the choice to increase investment in Head Start, and then he invited the nation to celebrate this national commitment to opportunity every October. That proved to be a good choice.
Take for example New York's Annmarie Lanesey, a stellar graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who employs six people in her technology business. She is just one of millions of Head Start alumni who have graduated from high school, finished college, and built successful careers. These alumni are distinguished by their grit -- resilience that is developed when a child in challenging circumstances meets early experiences with caring adults who make sure she is healthy, nourished and her mind opened to lifelong curiosity and love of learning. Head Start provides exactly this environment and, just as importantly, supports her family in finding employment, housing, and emotional strength.
Today, the national fiscal situation is arguably as daunting as it was in the 80's. And it is even more so for children. According to a recent poll by First Focus Campaign for Children, nearly 60 percent of Americans believe that children's lives are worse off now than they were 10 years ago and only 20 percent think that children are better off. Six million children under the age of six are living in poverty -- in families struggling to make ends meet with annual incomes under $24,000 for a family of four.
The difference is that now we know from solid research what Reagan knew intuitively -- that early learning, beginning at birth, sets the foundation for later success in education and in life. And that for children with challenging circumstances at birth, accessing excellent opportunities such as Head Start makes a difference between becoming a productive member of the community and dropping out of school, going to jail, and indulging in unhealthy behaviors. We know about the power of early experiences not only from research but from the lives of 27 million Head Start alumni in all walks of life -- doctors, teachers, business owners, lawyers, armed forces, and leaders in communities and across the nation.
But do candidates at all levels -- national, state, and local -- discuss the choices that they are prepared to make about early childhood education, about Head Start, about child care?
Do we as voters expect and demand to hear from the candidates -- in the debates, in town halls, on campaign stops -- to find out how well they connect their vision for early learning to the future of the economy, preparedness for new kinds of jobs, and to our global competitiveness? We do. The First Focus poll found that over sixty percent of voters believe that the candidates are not focusing enough attention on children's issues. Yet we are not hearing much about these choices.
Maybe it is time for the press, so exquisitely focused on the campaigns, to begin to beg the questions, to stimulate the discussions, to call out the effects of cutting deficits in the short term by cutting off the beginning of the human resource pipeline to the future, and to ask all candidates whether they are ready to make commitments to keep the window of learning opportunity open for all young children.