03/19/2013 06:26 pm ET Updated May 19, 2013

U.S. Early Education Focus Can Close Achievement Gaps -- and Political Ones

Since the election, the political headlines have been mostly dominated by heated discussions of the hot button issues facing Congress -- budget battles, immigration reform and gun control, to name a few.

But one other initiative mentioned in President Obama's State of the Union address has the potential -- with much less fanfare and partisan debate -- to radically transform the opportunities that are available to millions of children throughout the country. It is a simple idea that all Americans can and should agree on: expanding early care and education opportunities for all children age zero to five.

The president's call to action was direct: "In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children... studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job and form more stable families of their own. We know this works. So let's do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind."

The president's plan, released in the days that followed, would create a new federal-state partnership to provide all low and moderate-income children with quality preschool at age four, and expand Early Head Start child care opportunities through a series of competitive grants.

Why is this issue important to the Latino community?

It is critical because the "educational achievement gap" starts here. According to 2010 nationwide census figures, Latinos are the major ethnic group with the lowest rates of preschool attendance. Only 56 percent of Latino children attend pre-primary education programs at ages three through five, compared with 65 percent for African Americans, 67 percent for Whites, and 71 percent for Asian Americans. This translates directly into deficiencies in school readiness. To pick out one alarming statistic among many, the U.S. Department of Education reports that 36 percent of White children are able to recognize the letters of the alphabet when starting kindergarten; only about 15 percent of Latino children can do so. Click here to view the report (pdf).

In so many ways, quality child care and early education are the great equalizers. Study after study has demonstrated not only the long-range educational benefits, but also a whole host of ancillary social benefits from better health outcomes to lower rates of public assistance, incarceration, domestic abuse, and teen pregnancy. Not surprisingly, these benefits are most pronounced in families with low incomes who need it most. Since 90 percent of a child's brain is developed by her third birthday, investing in quality early education pays dividends for a child's entire life, and creates a more level playing field for society as a whole.

Supporting early care and education is also the smart thing to do when it comes to dollars and cents. Child care providers are economic engines that create jobs in every community and expand the tax base. In fact, in most states, child care providers comprise one of the largest categories of small business. And we sure heard a lot -- from both parties -- about small businesses in the last election. The truth is that economic development in every community depends upon the existence of high quality, affordable child care and early education.

That is why this issue has become a top priority for many civil rights organizations nationwide, including Public Counsel. For over 25 years, we have provided free legal support for thousands of child care providers who are passionate about working with children, and defended the rights of these providers to run their small businesses in local jurisdictions that all too often impose needless (and sometimes unlawful) bureaucratic obstacles.

We fight hard to help these child care businesses open, expand and prosper so that single parents can go to work, and so that communities can have the resources they need to give their children the right start in life. But while more organizations are joining the fight as of late, even more needs to be done.

Local and state government can also step into the breach. In San Antonio, for example, Mayor Julian Castro led a campaign for a successful ballot initiative that raised the sales tax by 1/8 of a cent to fund subsidized child care for thousands of poor children throughout the city. And, in California, the people passed Proposition 10 in 1998, creating a funding stream of hundreds of millions of dollars for ECE and providing for the formation of First 5 California to improve the lives of children through a comprehensive system of health services and early care and education programs. First 5 California has distributed funds to local communities and given hundreds of thousands of children in California under age 5 the opportunity for quality education and a real shot at the American dream.

Somewhere in America there's a future president who will look back at Mr. Obama's call to action on early care in some future State of the Union Address, and realize it's never too early to start dreaming big.