09/11/2013 05:51 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2013

'Preschool for All' Shouldn't Be 'One-Size-Fits-All'

Co-authored by Sara McElmurry, communications manager, Latino Policy Forum.

"[Let's] make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind," President Barack Obama said in his call to action for universal pre-K.

And as Latinos have the lowest preschool attendance rate of any group in the U.S., there's ample opportunity for the president's call to focus on boosting access for these young learners. There's also urgency: Illinois Latinos are up to six months behind their peers in cognitive measures before they even begin kindergarten, the start of a gap that develops into frustratingly low high school graduation rates. (This national report points to an eight-month gap for Mexican-American kids.)

I applaud the spirit of the federal plan to connect all American children with high-quality preschool. Research has long supported the benefits of early childhood education: Those who attend preschool are 20 percent more likely to graduate high school and, down the road, will earn 50 percent more than non-preschoolers. It follows that in times of fiscal austerity, preschool makes sense financially. Funds invested in early education produce a 10 percent annual rate of return in the form of increased workforce productivity, as well as lower expenditures in remedial education, health and criminal justice.

But while early education offers benefits to everyone, a one-size-fits-all approach isn't always the best way forward for our diverse communities. And that's why my shop, the Chicago-based Latino Policy Forum, recently jumped at the opportunity to provide both a local and Latino perspective on the federal "Preschool for All" proposal. Having long advocated for improved Latino access to quality early childhood education in Illinois -- a state that knows something about providing "Preschool for All," having administered a program by the same name since 2006 -- the Forum was well-positioned to contribute to proposal recommendations submitted by both the Illinois Early Learning Council and the National Council of La Raza, including:

Level the playing field -- and start earlier. The president's plan outlines his vision to connect all 4-year-olds with quality preschool. That's an ambitious, exciting goal. But we'd like to see a crucial element of Illinois' program reflected in the federal plan's mission: to serve at-risk or low-income 3-year-olds before serving 4-year-olds who do not have significant risk factors. There are two reasons for this. First, there's the case for investing in the disadvantaged: Education can't be the "great equalizer" if the proverbial playing field isn't level from the start. (And even at kindergarten, it's not level for Latino children.) The data show us that at-risk and low-income kids gain more from preschool than their peers; inversely, they have more to lose by not attending. Secondly, there's the call to start early. Research indicates that for children with significant risk factors, waiting until age four is less effective than starting early. Cognitive foundations are laid at birth and grow rapidly in the first three years. The bottom line is that the earlier that low-income, at-risk children -- many of whom are Latino -- get connected with high-quality education, the stronger the impact on human potential (and the higher the ROI for taxpayers).

Broaden the definition of "quality." The federal proposal would put "qualified" (well-trained and well-paid) teachers at the heads of all preschool classrooms, a move we and other early ed advocates applaud. But to ensure the program encompasses the linguistic and cultural factors critical for the success of increasingly diverse student populations, we must examine the definition of "quality." Illinois' bilingual preschool mandate, the first of its kind in the nation, provides a blueprint for a federal effort to connect linguistically-competent educators with the growing cohort of learners, Latino and otherwise, who speak languages other than English at home. In building a teacher pipeline that can effectively support diverse learners, we must provide all teachers with opportunities for linguistic and cultural professional development -- and adopt practices that attract diverse teacher candidates to the profession.

Community access is key. The reasons behind low Latino preschool enrollment are as numerous as they are complex. But among the most striking issues is one that's also the simplest: Early education centers generally aren't physically located in Latino communities. (Here's what that disparity looks like in Illinois.) Recognizing the urgency of constructing facilities in these high-need areas, Illinois recently awarded $45 million in construction grants to 14 different community providers, another first-of-its-kind program that will give 1,200 more children access to high-quality preschool services. As parental involvement is the gold standard in quality early childhood education, community-based centers like these are at an advantage, both culturally and geographically, in engaging diverse families. The federal proposal must reflect the importance of directly funding these community-based providers and supporting their construction and maintenance.

The early childhood education advocacy community has been preaching the benefits of preschool and early learning for decades, and we're thrilled that President Obama is championing this issue. But we must be sure not to conflate the notions of "Preschool for All" and "one size fits all." By designing early education opportunities that fit the priorities of low-income communities with limited access, we'll ensure that we're building the best academic foundation possible for all of our children -- and the strongest economic future possible for us all.