Keeping Faith With Our Children

Education for all is a defining value of our country, and living up to it takes more than lip service. It takes dedication, hard work, and financial commitment. It means working in partnerships to create the best federal, state, and local policies to increase educational opportunities for all. It also means starting early.

States across the nation have begun to recognize the importance of significant investments in early-childhood education. More states are following the lead of Georgia, New York, and Oklahoma by enacting initiatives that call for universal preschool education. Massachusetts has recently laid the foundation for early education for every child in the state; West Virginia passed a law pledging preschool education for all 4-year-olds in a decade; and Florida voters adopted a constitutional amendment mandating the same, sooner. But to fully realize this defining national value, it will take sustained and inspired federal leadership -- of the kind that is lacking in Washington today.

Nevertheless, the movement is accelerating in many states because of advances in understanding of how very young children develop, and of how profoundly their earliest years affect the rest of their lives. An impressive National Academy of Sciences study led by Dr. Jack Shonkoff at Brandeis University, From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development, makes the case: If we fail to meet children's developmental needs starting at birth, we shortchange our children and our society as well. That's the impetus for the newly launched National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, chaired by Shonkoff.

We need to invest in early education if we are serious about improving student achievement, minimizing learning disabilities and emotional disorders, and ensuring that children arrive ready to learn on the first day of school, graduate from high school, attend college, and excel in the workforce.

Young children's potential rests heavily on the quality of the environment in which they learn, whether at home, in day care, or in a nursery-school classroom. When the environment is inadequate, gaps in achievement quickly widen, becoming increasingly difficult to overcome. In no other area is an ounce of prevention worth so many pounds of cure.

Today in America, far too many of our nearly 20 million children under 5 don't receive the nurturing they need to learn and grow. Sixty-two percent spend time each day in the care of someone other than their parents -- some in preschool, others in child-care settings that are too often substandard.

Years ago, the Perry Preschool Project in Michigan and North Carolina's Abecedarian Project began to identify solutions. Those proven programs demonstrated that high-quality early education makes a significant difference in a child's future. We have learned, too, that investments in training, professional development, and fair compensation for the early-education workforce are essential for success.

A full range of action that addresses the physical, social, emotional, and cognitive development of children is the key to successful early education. Surely we can develop reasonable standards of quality for early-childhood education comparable to those for elementary-school education in the No Child Left Behind Act. At a minimum, we need to coordinate the wide variety of current programs and services for children so they share common priorities and the goal of school readiness.

We can't achieve high quality and success without a substantial financial investment. For four decades, Head Start has offered a helping hand to the nation's neediest families and children. By providing pre-academic skills and social skills, by guaranteeing needed medical and dental care, and by teaching families about nutrition and the role of a balanced diet in a healthy life and school success, the program ensures that nearly a million children a year get the support they need to begin school ready to learn.

In spite of its success, though, Head Start now serves only three out of every five eligible children in the nation, leaving 2.6 million eligible children and their families without the chance to reduce the severe impact of poverty on their future. But the Bush administration proposes changes that could undermine this proven program, including a contemplated cut of $177 million from next year's budget.

Perhaps the best return is for our families and communities, who will see once and for all that we've done everything possible to help a generation of young Americans reach their potential and fulfill their dreams.

The new Congress elected on November 2 should put this issue at the top of its education agenda. I will welcome the day when Congress gives the same priority in time and dollars to education for our very youngest children that it now gives to elementary, secondary, and college education. When that day comes, we will have kept faith with our families, with our schools, and with the next generation.

I commend The American Prospect and its impressive group of authors for focusing on the importance of early-childhood education, the best investment we can make in the future of our country.

Edward M. Kennedy is a U.S. senator from Massachusetts.