Education

All children deserve a high-quality early education

Shemetri Charley watches over her pre-K class at Wee Kare Academy in Pensacola. The Academy is nationally accredited, and its program had a readiness rate of 100 percent last year. / Photo by Michael Spooneybarger

In an idea world all children would have access to a safe and accessible, high-quality early childhood education.

But we don’t live in a utopia, and in today’s complex world of education, a lot of the focus in early learning has been on helping low-income families gain access to preschool programs.

Noticeably missing from the public policy agenda is the rising cost of childcare and preschool for middle-class families.

In fact, an analysis by the non-partisan think tank, The Century Foundation, found that children from middle-class income families are less likely to attend preschool than their peers from high-income families.

As reported in Education Week, “Middle Class Children Need Preschool Too,” the approach to funding early-childhood investment is seriously flawed.

Poor families are not the only ones in need of high-quality childcare and preschool.

Middle-income families find themselves in a quandary because they don’t quality for public subsidies, but they can’t afford high-quality care — nor can they afford to have a parent stay at home.

The cost of child care is an issue in the Pensacola metro area, too, though our region fares better than our peers in the state in this measurement. According to data from the Studer Community Institute’s Metro Dashboard, child care costs an average of 49 percent of a single-parent’s income in Escambia County. In Santa Rosa, it costs 30 percent.

One of the 16 key metrics measured in the Studer Community Institute’s Dashboard is kindergarten readiness. The dashboard, created in collaboration with the University of West Florida, is a snapshot of the community’s economic, educational and social well-being.

Early learning and kindergarten readiness are critical indicators for a child’s future success in school and in life.

In 2015, nearly a third of children — 34 percent — entering kindergarten in Escambia County aren’t prepared for school.

In Santa Rosa County, 19 percent of children didn’t score ready for school, while nearly 30 percent failed to meet requirements statewide.

Children who enter school with early skills, such as basic knowledge of math and reading, are more likely than their peers to experience later academic success.

But there’s a widely held belief that children of college-educated parents in middle-class families can afford childcare and will succeed in life regardless of participation in pre-K.

The prevailing thought in early education circles was to give added attention to low-income children and the rest, will (or should) take care of themselves.

In recent years, Florida has increased the number of subsidized childcare and preschool slots available for low-income families. But middle-class families get little or no additional help, despite growing research that show high-quality early learning makes a huge difference in academic and other long-term outcomes for all children.

Statistics show that a working, middle-class family with two young children will spend on average nearly 30 percent of their income on child care.

The price for high-quality pre-K programs in some states exceeds college tuition. In California, for example, parents are paying as much as $24,000 a year per child. By comparison, a year of state college tuition and fees costs about $13,000 per student.

Instead of fighting over limited resources, there needs to be a bigger pie for everyone.

The Century Foundation’s analysis cites several reports on the positive effects of early education on middle-class children, an area that has historically received short shrift.

Currently, there is little agreement on how government — at the local, state and federal level — can make pre-K more affordable to more middle-class families.

And that a shame, because ample research shows that children who attend high-quality preschool do much better when they get to kindergarten, and this makes a big difference for their later success.

The benefits of high-quality pre-K and childcare are immeasurable. It is critical to closing the achievement gap between children of different economic backgrounds and for preparing them for kindergarten, primary school and beyond.

Decades of research show that investing in children at an early age pays incredible dividends over the course of a child’s lifetime.

Children deserve access to affordable, high-quality education that promotes early learning and school readiness, regardless of their family income.

We need to stop asking whether early education works and start asking whether we have the will to make it a reality for all children.