One of the most cost-effective ways to increase equity in education and expand opportunity to our nation’s children is to invest in high-quality preschool for our youngest learners – and not just some of them, but all of them. Federal- and state-led efforts over the past seven-and-a-half years have helped our country make progress toward this goal. In 2009, only 38 states offered children access to state-funded preschool, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University. In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama called for all children to have access to high-quality, state-supported preschool. Since the President’s announcement, all but four states offer preschool to young children and nearly 40 states and Washington, D.C., have invested more than an additional $1.5 billion in support of preschool.
Despite these promising developments, a new report from NIEER shows that thousands of children from low- and middle-income families in communities across the country still do not have access to quality preschool.
Indeed, NIEER’s analysis shows that access to high-quality preschool in the United States remains low and unequal. In fact, according to the new NIEER report, three states with large populations of minority children – California, Florida, and Texas – have among the largest programs but the weakest quality standards for preschools. Florida and Texas also funded preschool for fewer children in 2014-2015, as compared to the previous year.
Thankfully, other states did just the opposite. States such as Missouri, Michigan, and New York raised enrollment and quality. New York, in particular, substantially increased funding for state preschool and, thanks to Mayor Bill de Blasio, instituted a plan to provide preschool education to all 4-year-olds in New York City regardless of their socio-economic status.
At the U.S. Department of Education, we place a high priority on increasing access and quality in early education for all children to receive the strong start they deserve. A major contributor to quality is an adequate supply of dedicated, talented, diverse, and well-prepared teachers who can provide nurturing care and facilitate learning and growth. Recruiting the teaching force our families and children need requires that we pay our preschool teachers a salary that is competitive, recognizes the importance of their work, and is on par with other public school educators.
We need support on this issue at every level. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which the President signed in December, provides multiple opportunities for states and schools to use federal funding for early education. However, the new report from NIEER rightly suggests that any new investments in preschool shouldn’t be used for expanding access alone; they must be leveraged to increase the quality of these programs as well. At the federal level, we take this finding very seriously, and it’s reflected in our programs, including the Preschool Development Grants, which were recently codified in our new education law.
Congress must fund the opportunities they’ve outlined in ESSA and do even more. Congress should fund the President’s proposal for voluntary, universal high-quality preschool outlined in his fiscal year 2017 budget proposal, which would create a more robust federal-state partnership for achieving this goal. Only then can we move aggressively toward stamping out inequality in early childhood education and expanding opportunity, one child at a time.
John B. King, Jr., is U.S. Secretary of Education.