One of the best-documented modern research findings is that investment in young children pays big dividends. Brain science, social psychology, and decades of education research demonstrate that the life chances of at-risk children can be improved immensely if they have access to high-quality early education. This means not just pre-kindergarten, but a new set of policies aimed at helping parents of very young children, as well as child-care and after-school programs that are enriching rather than custodial.
Although it is now normal for mothers of very young children to be in the paid labor force, public policy has not kept up with changes in family life, and children often pay the price. America's way of dealing with the needs of children is at odds with the policies of every other advanced nation, where pre-kindergarten and high-quality child care are universal and social. Our country pays the price in stunted lives, inadequately educated adults, higher crime rates, and generational cycles of deprivation that feed on themselves.
Progress is blocked by the perception of fiscal scarcity, and by the lingering cultural premise that children are the responsibility of families, not of society. Of course, society has shared that responsibility ever since the Commonwealth of Massachusetts invented the free public school in the 1630s, but some ideas die hard. The cynical slogan, "no child left behind," is interpreted as meaning high-stakes testing in math and reading, but when it comes to very young children, and the child-care needs of school-age children and their working parents, America's kids are not just left behind but left out entirely.
The good news is that the research evidence is clearer than ever, and that progress is being made at the state level (in a federal-policy vacuum). This Prospect special report addresses the several fronts of the battle for a comprehensive strategy to meet the needs of young children and their parents.
As the article by Susan Urahn and Sara Watson suggests, universal pre-kindergarten may be the best entering wedge for expanding early childhood services. The progress in Illinois, Pennsylvania, and other states indicates that even in a period of fiscal stress, it is possible to win broad support for what is a far-reaching, new entitlement program. Social science research powerfully documents that earlier support, for children under age 3 and in the very first months of life, may be even more crucial. The articles by Lawrence Aber, Tara McKelvey, and Rucker Johnson suggest the value of interventions for very young children, and their families. So the question of where best to intervene, to create what must be a political transformation, is merely tactical. Ultimately, we need progress on all fronts.
According to Daniel Pedersen, president of the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, "It's not ideology and it's not self-interest. It's return on investment that's motivating these politicians to support a zero-to-five agenda. If you have a limited number of public dollars to spend, it's all the more important that you spend them in a way that will have the greatest impact."
There are some instructive arguments within the broad coalition of groups that support expanded early education. Should we place most of our chips on universal pre-kindergarten for 3-year-olds and 4-year-olds, for which a national coalition has political momentum, and then build outward from there? Or should we attempt to make progress on several fronts simultaneously? Should we target services to the very needy? Or should we pursue what Harvard sociologist Theda Skocpol termed "targeting within universalism"? As with Medicare, if we extend universal services in an area where the poor are most likely to go without, by definition we disproportionately help the poor -- and also build political coalitions and social solidarity with the non-poor.
Dig a little deeper and you find polite disagreement about quantity versus quality, and about what we mean by quality. Should we establish the principle of universal pre-kindergarten, even if some kids end up being taught in a patchwork of storefronts and church basements by underpaid and under-qualified people -- and then fight for higher standards later? Or should we hold out for a program at least as good as Head Start and public kindergarten?
And what do we mean by quality? Should everyone who teaches in a preschool have a B.A. or better, with a salary to match (as nearly every other advanced country requires)? Or should we recognize the talents of culturally indigenous preschool workers, many of whom do not have college degrees, and devise strategies to improve their professionalism and earnings even if that does not always mean having them earn a B.A.? What kinds of career ladders within the field of child development and early childhood education are most cost-effective and most respectful of cultural differences?
As Hedy Chang wrote, in an important recent report published by the group California Tomorrow, titled Getting Ready for Quality, "Early childhood educators must be able to work effectively in partnership with diverse communities, and respond to and build upon the culture, language, and other valuable assets of families." The report expressed the very real concern that in a well-meaning effort to upgrade the quality of early childhood teachers and other workers, "a movement toward requiring all lead preschool teachers to hold or obtain Bachelor of Arts degrees in early childhood education will, without careful policy attention to prevent it, result in decreasing the diversity, and therefore the quality of the preschool teaching workforce. Decreased diversity is likely to impede school readiness efforts in culturally and linguistically diverse communities."
Yet these very real concerns are in part the product of scarcity and misplaced national priorities. If American leaders had learned from the science of child development, there would be adequate funds for plenty of preschool teachers with bachelor's degrees or better, and for better compensation of community-based people with less than B.A. degrees as well as the prospect of good career ladders for them.
The effort to expand social outlays for children is intimately bound up with the politics of race and class. The children most at risk are poor; the poor are disproportionately minority.
It is the poorest children who are likely to have parents with deprived educational backgrounds, parents juggling multiple jobs, parents less likely to read to their children, parents whose own lives are often too stressed for them to give the nurturing that they so dearly want to give. At a time when middle-class families are also financially squeezed, it seems like a hard sell politically to ask for a substantial new category of social outlay. In the context of fiscal scarcity, spending on children is made to compete with other under-funded and better-defended candidates for social outlay, such as health care and basic public education, and advocates of different emphases and tactics within the field of early childhood often find themselves jousting with one another over shares of too small a pie.
Yet, this year, we taxpayers will contribute upward of $200 billion to pay for the Iraq War and kindred optional military adventures. For half that, we could have a first-class national early childhood program, where we do not have to trade off quantity against quality, or pre-K against very early childhood, or the compensation and training of in-place child-care workers with the goal of college-educated pre-K teachers, or the choice of more parental leave versus more institutional care. For half the cost of the Iraq War, we could have it all.
Another, somewhat perverse piece of political good news is that more and more middle-class families are vulnerable to the same stresses that have afflicted poor families through the ages -- not enough time both to earn a living and to care for children; and rising cost barriers to the highest-quality care that the rich have always paid for privately. Four decades after a supposed feminist revolution, women workers, whether professional, middle class, or working poor, find that having children in the absence of a national system of high-quality child care still forces them to choose between their career advancement and their kids. Like the pulling away of the wealthy in so many other areas of American life, the nanny class is a small minority of voters. As a consequence, comprehensive funding for early childhood has less of the aura of paying for other people's children and more of an increasing sense of investing in all our children.
Some day, the Iraq fiasco will be over. There will be a peace dividend, literally in the hundreds of billions. If we do not invest a major piece of that dividend in our children, shame on us. And as this special report suggests, child development scientists and advocates have already made a good beginning.