01/28/2011 07:37 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

To the Man with the Audacity of Hope: Let's Make Good on Cradle to Career

Your administration began two years ago this month, heralding a new era of education reform from "Cradle to Career." You declared your commitment to the nation's youngest learners even before you took office. Who could forget that fabulous photo? The president- and vice president-elect and the Education Secretary-to-be in pint-sized chairs in a public school classroom in Chicago, framed by "Goodnight Moon" and Dr. Seuss. You had Barbara Bowman, early childhood education advocate, whispering in your ears. And you promised $10 billion for investment in a part of the education spectrum that has long been the stepchild of the system.

We were bedazzled and dared to dream.

Then, you filled us in on the State of the Union this dark, cold January. Education, we were told, would be high-priority. You talked about education, all right, framing the "race to educate our kids" as a matter of survival, crucial to our nation's future. You recited the familiar litany of trouble: declining college and high school completion rates; the dismal state of math and science education; the abdication of parental responsibility; our failing schools; our under-valued teachers; our complacent teachers; the math and science brain drain; the barriers to higher education. You touted "Race to the Top," calling it the "most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation," and you ended with the following words:

If we take these steps -- if we raise expectations for every child, and give them the best possible chance at an education, from the day they are born until the last job they take -- we will reach the goal that I set two years ago: By the end of the decade, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

But America will not reach that goal without high-quality early childhood education for all. You paid lip service in your remarks to "cradle to career" ("from the day they are born until the last job they take"), but you've betrayed your original promise. The Early Learning Challenge Fund, the vehicle for those tantalizing billions, is barely alive. While States and localities are cutting preschool across the country, hundreds of thousands of toddlers and preschoolers may be shut out of educational opportunities, as appropriations for Head Start and child care are endangered. And we haven't even mentioned the scant funds for professional development of the early childhood workforce, which is woefully behind on the quality curve.

Education reform that excludes early childhood cannot succeed. Since you're an ardent history student, take a lesson: In 1990, all state governors endorsed school readiness as their top education priority, embodied in "Goals 2000: Educate America Act of 1994." They envisioned high-quality preschool as one of the three means of realizing this goal (the others were assistance to parents as their children's first teachers and assurance that all children receive appropriate nutrition and health care). Two decades later, kindergarten teachers rate only 30 percent of America's children as ready for school. Children who are behind when they pass through the schoolhouse door are at significant risk for school failure. Today, the average black or Latino high school student achieves only at the level of the lowest quartile of white students. Black and Latino students are also much more likely than white students to drop out and less likely to graduate from high school. And then there's college.

In July of 2009, you announced your own Graduation Initiative, with a goal of five million more college graduates by 2020. This past summer, the College Board released "The College Completion Agenda 2010." The report's first recommendation: provide voluntary, universal preschool for all children from low-income families. That's a good start.

You've got all the data at your fingertips. You're positively drowning in it, I'm sure. You've got economists, business leaders and higher education and child development experts out the wazoo promoting the numerous benefits and cost-effectiveness of early childhood education. Not only do you know that children learn more in the first years of life than at any other time in their lives, but you also know that high-quality early care and education produces children more ready for school (more likely to be academically successful and complete college and less likely to drop out of school). They're also more likely to grow up to be the kind of innovative, productive citizens that we so desperately need to ensure this country's future.

Your vision for America is bold. But you won't get there if you keep to the current course. Get back to the cradle, Mr. President, to the scientists in the crib, to those magical years of early childhood, where our country's future lies. You can't afford to wait.