US is falling behind other nations in providing pre-K schooling

Garner: 'Playing field for kids not equal'
Garner: 'Playing field for kids not equal'

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W. Steven Barnett is a Board of Governors professor, founder and senior co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. Mark K. Shriver is CEO of Save the Children Action Network and senior vice president of US programs and advocacy at Save the Children. The opinions expressed in this commentary are theirs.

(CNN)When it comes to early childhood education, the United States needs to step up. Many developed nations now have more than 90% enrollment in pre-K programs, surpassing the US with just 66% enrollment for 4-year-olds. Rising superpowers are making significant commitments to expand access to early education over the next few years, with China promising to have pre-K for every 4-year-old and most 3-year-olds by 2020.

Mark K. Shriver
W. Steven Barnett
While we were glad to see Congress invest additional funding in high-quality early childhood education programs, including Head Start and Early Head Start, in the bipartisan omnibus spending bill passed last month, it is simply not enough. Opportunities for high-quality pre-K remain highly unequal across our country, and much of the progress in early education depends more than ever on the states.
Some countries have passed us by, investing more in young children along with those teaching them and enabling their future workers to outcompete us. Building walls and raising tariffs won't give us an edge on the competition; our best weapon is a solid preschool foundation.
    Quality early learning programs not only give children a strong start in life, they make good economic sense and build a robust workforce. Reports show high rates of return on public investments in early childhood education as a result of improvements in not only education but also health, economic productivity and reduced crime.
    The National Institute for Early Education Research began collecting data on state-funded preschool programs in 2002. Fifteen years later, the institute's State of Preschool 2017 report released this week shows that even though many elected officials claim to support early education, actual enrollment of 4-year-olds has grown only slightly since the Great Recession of 2007-2009.
    Too many state programs today sacrifice quality by spending too little on keeping qualified teachers in classrooms, failing to provide teachers with adequate professional development, and under-supporting good choices and strong implementation of curriculum. The National Institute for Early Education Research report shows that spending per child enrolled has actually decreased since 2002, after adjusting for inflation, putting quality at risk.
    Access to high-quality programs in different states also varies widely. States as geographically and culturally different as Alabama and New Jersey establish and fund high standards for quality, while many other states set significantly lower standards and funding levels inconsistent with high quality. And while New Jersey's quality is good, the vast majority of the state's children do not have access to public pre-K.
    Other states choose not to invest public dollars in preschool at all. While Vermont enrolls more than 70% of 4-year-olds and about 60% of 3-year-olds -- with plans to continue improving -- a handful of states provide no state-funded preschool.
    At its core, high-quality education should be tailored to individual children by teachers who understand their unique needs. To establish this as the status quo, we must start with a foundation of well-prepared, continuously improving teachers with a reasonably small class size and support in and out of the classroom.
    Multiple reports from the National Academy of Sciences recommend a four-year college degree for pre-K teachers to provide children the best start possible -- and provide taxpayers the best return on investment. Yet preschool teacher pay is notoriously low in most states. Some state-funded pre-K teachers are paid less than $15 per hour. This naturally keeps qualifications low in these states. Florida, for example, does not require any kind of college degree to teach at this level.
    Even publicly funded pre-kindergarten programs that require teachers to have the same credentials as kindergarten teachers rarely require equivalent pay and benefits for pre-K teachers. The National Institute for Early Education Research's analysis finds that in some states pre-K teachers with a bachelor's degree earn more than $10,000 less per year than colleagues teaching slightly older children. These wage discrepancies make attracting and keeping strong teachers a constant struggle.
    It is especially difficult to attract teachers with the cultural and linguistic knowledge needed to work effectively with our growing population of young children in homes where English is not the primary language. Raising children to speak both English and another language should be a national goal to increase our competitiveness in the global economy. We start with an advantage since about 23 % of the preschool-age population lives in homes where a language in addition to English is spoken. Yet the National Institute for Early Education Research's new report shows that about half of states do not even collect data on children's home languages, which makes it nearly impossible to design effective classroom supports for young children in English and another home language.
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    Our elected leaders have done too little in recent years to increase educational opportunity, beginning with high-quality preschool. Strong state pre-K programs will help reverse inequality and restore excellence in the education of our children and the adults who teach them. It's time to let state officials know we expect them to put early education on track to be world class -- thereby improving not only our workforce but our future economy as well.