11/13/2013 05:55 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

America Can't Afford to Waitlist Its Children's Future

Last spring, I met a mother from West Virginia named Susan Armstead who said something that stuck with me. "Only time will tell whether my children will be able to attend preschool," Susan said.

She explained that when her son turned 3, Susan registered him for preschool, completed all the necessary screenings and even purchased his school clothes. A rude awakening came when she had to confront the harsh reality more and more parents across America face when their kids reach preschool age. Her child was placed on a waiting list due to limited space.

Now 4, he is still on the waiting list while her youngest, a daughter who recently turned 3, faces the same fate.

Fortunately, Susan had enrolled them in Save the Children's early childhood education program called Early Steps to School Success. Having outgrown the home-visiting component of the program for ages 0-2, the two kids are now part of Save the Children's book exchange for 3-5-year-olds. But aside from the services Save the Children is offering, there are few other early childhood education opportunities available to them in rural Roane Country.

Sadly, Susan's story is not an exception. With the shortage of affordable pre-K and child care slots, it has become the new normal in America. Fifty-three percent of 3- and 4-year-olds in this country are not enrolled in any kind of preschool, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation's annual Kids Count report. That means that more than half of our kids walk into kindergarten unprepared and already behind.

Children without access to quality early education programs start kindergarten with an 18-month disadvantage, and that gap continues to widen. By the time they are in fourth grade, many cannot do math or read at grade level. And the simple reality is that they are unlikely to catch up.

The good news for parents around the country -- especially those living in poverty -- is that bipartisan legislation will be introduced today in Congress that would invest up to $75 billion in early childhood education over 10 years.

Through a partnership with the states, the Strong Start for America's Children Act aims to provide high-quality preschool for all four-year-olds while promoting access to early education programs for younger children. The U.S. Department of Education will distribute the funds based on each state's share of four-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families.

Save the Children's artist ambassador Jennifer Garner will join Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), and Rep. Richard Hanna (R-New York) on Capitol Hill this morning to urge Congress to support this legislation. Investing in a comprehensive national early childhood program could add $2 trillion to the annual gross domestic product within a generation, according to the Brookings Institute, and result in a dramatic decrease to poverty rates.

Quality early childhood education programs, such as those run by Save the Children across 17 states, give the nearly one in four infants, toddlers and preschoolers who live in poverty a chance at a brighter future.

Getting an early start on learning also helps these children improve their chances to graduate from high school, obtain a higher education, purchase a home and contribute to their community. This is an incredible return on investment that would, in the future, help solve many of the problems our nation is struggling with today.

But we must invest now, because when our children's future is on the line, America can't afford to leave it up to time.