11/09/2011 11:43 am ET Updated Jan 09, 2012

Baby Steps For Early Learning

It's been a stellar couple of weeks for the U.S. Department of Education. And how often do we get to use that adjective for an agency ever under the gun?

On October 19, the DOE welcomed applications from 35 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico for $500 million in grants for Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC, for short) the administration's down payment on an integrated, coordinated, accountable system of education that begins at birth and ends with college.

Then, on November 5, Education Secretary Arne Duncan appeared right here, with his jubilant announcement of the creation of an Office of Early Learning, headed by his Senior Advisor Jacqueline Jones, whose portfolio includes stints at the New Jersey Department of Education (a pathbreaker, by the way, in matters of early ed) and the Educational Testing Service, where she focused on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NEAP), a.k.a the dreaded "Nation's Report Card."

In between these two milestones -- just a day after the RTT-ELC applications hit the desk of Jacqueline Jones -- New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof took notice. Known more for his commentary on genocide in Darfur and poverty in Sierra Leone than for circle time, Goodnight Moon, and the Creative Curriculum, Kristof paid homage to the benefits of early childhood education, lamenting its absence from the policy agenda.

Wait a minute, said one of my colleagues, who just happens to chair one of the states' Early Childhood Advisory Councils. Kristof, she said, was behind the curve. Hadn't he noticed RTT-ELC, one of the most substantial investments in young children to come along in quite some time?

Don't get me wrong: I couldn't be more thrilled with the administration's focus on the early years of education. Credit must be given where it's due. But, as I noted, way back last spring, when Duncan et al. launched the RTT-ELC, early learning has long been on the short end of investment. And while $500 million is certainly nothing to sniff at, Obama's original Early Learning Challenge Fund, with its promise of 8 to 10 billion over as many years, made half a billion look like a pittance.

No, $500 million is not enough.

Public investment in the beginning of the education spectrum, as noted by Early Learning Left Out: Closing the Investment Gap for America's Youngest Children, and driven home relentlessly in recent years by Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman, pales by comparison with investments in school-and college-aged youth. Less than 9 percent of public investments in education and development are made during the critical birth-to-three years. By age three, 85 percent of the brain's architecture is in place, the foundation for social-emotional and cognitive growth and early learning.

Yet, according to Public Investment in Children's Early and Elementary Years, a joint report by the Urban Institute and the Brookings Institution,the U.S. invests only $4,121 on each infant and toddler, compared to $6,702 on pre-kindergartners and kindergartners, and, $10,783 per student by the time children hit elementary school. These gaps in investment continue to grow up through secondary and higher education.

Just a couple of weeks ago, the OECD released a report that looked at how member states stack up on the social justice scale. On all metrics of equality on the index, including public expenditure on pre-primary education as a percentage of G.D.P, the U.S., "with its alarming poverty levels," is, at 27, near the bottom of the list of 32 OECD members, ranking slightly better than Mexico and newcomer, Chile.

Something is desperately wrong with this picture.

For the deficit-cutting "super committee," which has little truck with social justice, the economic argument cannot be so easily dismissed. As this bipartisan panel contemplates trillions of dollars in cuts to domestic programs, members should note that high-quality early childhood education yields a 7 to 10 percent annual return on investment. But I'll let Heckman have the last word here, from his recent report on The Economics of Inequality :

We can invest early to close disparities and prevent achievement gaps, or we can pay to remediate disparities when they are harder and more expensive to close. Either way we are going to pay... But there is an important difference between the two approaches. Investing early allows us to shape the future; investing later chains us to fixing the missed opportunities of the past.