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Letter to the Senate HELP Committee on early childhood education

April 09, 2014

Dear Senator:

On behalf of the three million members of the National Education Association and the students they serve, we would like to offer our views in advance of tomorrow’s hearing, “Expanding Access to Quality Early Learning: the Strong Start for America’s Children Act.”

NEA strongly supports existing early childhood education programs, as well as the bipartisan Strong Start for America’s Children Act (S. 1697) — vitally important legislation that would establish a new federal-state partnership to accelerate progress already underway and help states fund high-quality prekindergarten for four-year olds from low-income families. This legislation would also encourage states to support prekindergarten for four-year-olds from moderate-income families and learning opportunities for even younger children — for example, through partnerships with Early Head Start programs.

Ideally, prekindergarten would be publically funded and universally available, just like our public system of K-12 education. While we recognize the need for a mixture of public and private funding for prekindergarten, we also believe that federal dollars used by private providers must be subject to certain protections — for example, federal laws and regulations that prohibit discrimination in hiring and proselytizing with federal resources.

Paramount in importance is ensuring equal educational opportunity for all children. During the first five years of a child’s life, when the brain is still forming, 26 percent of America’s children are living in poverty (Source: U.S. Census Bureau). Fifty-four percent of our three- and four-year olds are NOT enrolled in preschool (Source: Annie E. Casey Foundation, Kids Count Data Center). Yet we know from longitudinal studies that high-quality prekindergarten programs confer lasting benefits — in school and in life:

  • The HighScope Perry Preschool Study found that individuals who were enrolled in quality preschool programs ultimately earned up to $2,000 more per month than those who were not, and that young people who were in preschool programs were more likely to graduate from high school and own homes.
  • The Abecedarian Project found that children in quality preschool programs are less likely to repeat grades, need special education, or get in trouble with the law later on.

High-quality prekindergarten programs also bring enormous economic benefits. They can pay for themselves in as little as a year and, over decades, save the states and the federal government billions of dollars. The eventual benefit-to-cost ratio can be as high as 8-to-1 (Source: Economic Policy Institute).

Yet the promise of equal opportunity that is every American’s birthright remains unfulfilled. While existing programs are doing good work and meeting important needs, the demand for the services they offer far exceeds the supply — for example, Head Start reaches only about two-fifths of eligible preschool-age children, and Early Head Start reaches less than 4 percent of eligible infants and toddlers (Source: National Women’s Law Center).

Investing in our youngest children is investing in America’s future. High-quality prekindergarten programs play a critical role in putting our children on the path to success. Every child should have access to high-quality prekindergarten programs, not just those from families that can afford to pay for them.

We thank the Committee for holding a hearing on this critical legislation and for the opportunity to submit our views. We look forward to working with the Committee going forward.

Sincerely,

Mary Kusler
Director of Government Relations