Early Ed in SOTU: Personal, Professional, Political

I’ve been following rumors of a federal early education plan just as closely as most early ed policy wonks over the last few weeks in a largely professional capacity: what is the Center for American Progress proposing in their plan? How closely do we think it will reflect what the White House is cooking up? Is this really going to make it to the State of the Union, the annual “big show” of American politics? What does our work over at NIEER tell us about costs, quality, and access, and what of that may be making it into this proposal? I started at NIEER in 2009 as a Graduate Research Assistant while working on my Masters in Public Policy at Rutgers, taking an interest in early education as an issue of social policy and a way to fight poverty. I remember a grad school friend telling me that it seemed like a field with a lot of rapid growth, and she could not have been more right – in the years since, we’ve seen growth in the number of states providing state-funded pre-K; we’ve seen media coverage of NIEER’s State of Preschool Yearbook, the project on which I spend most of my time, increasing; and we’ve seen federal interest in early education beyond just targeted programs through Head Start in the form of the Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge. I’m thrilled to see President Obama talking about early education in his State of the Union, elevating in to the level of a national priority, and I’m looking forward to reading more details in the coming days and weeks, analyzing the impact this could have for children, and watching so many good advocates press to get this program we so badly need.

But, if you’ll allow me, I’d like to take a bit of a personal detour this evening, when – admittedly – my emotions are running a bit high. As the saying goes, the personal is political, and when your profession is policy, I suppose the personal becomes professional by the transitive property. In the end, the three all gets muddled, but what I mean is that while I had no real concept of the importance of early education just five years ago when I was in college, it’s become one of the most engaging issues of my life since. I am not one of those esteemed professionals who can say I’ve been in this field for 30 years, because I don’t even have 30 years of living experience, let alone work experience. That being said, I’m thrilled to be in a generation of young policy analysts who see early education as an important equity issue and the path to a better America.

I’ve mentioned before that I had an interesting educational path: Catholic nursery school, to first one then another local Catholic school until 8th grade (because private schools, like traditional publics and charters, vary widely in quality, and the second one was deemed “better”), then a STEM Magnet school, then a small Catholic college, then grad work at the very-large state university of New Jersey. I didn’t really have any interaction with the traditional public K-1 system, largely because my parents had concerns about the quality and safety of the local schools were we lived (Yes, this points to larger issues in the funding of education via property taxes. Yes, it is an issue that weighs heavily on my mind in terms of future moves. Yes, it is an issue for a different blog!). But one of the most interesting things I learned since entering the early education world was while bringing myself up to speed on some of NIEER’s work when I started there: Who Goes to Preschool and Why Does It Matter? This policy brief could basically be called a classic and it’s a great primer on the early ed situation, though it’s from 2007. This is when I learned that enrolling a child with pre-K is highly correlated with mother’s level of educational attainment, which is one of the many factors contributing to socioeconomic status. Specifically, it was the graphic on page 8 showing that in 1991, only 59% of mother’s with a high school diploma enrolled their 4-year-olds in pre-K while that jumped to 80% for “college or more.” This particularly struck me: that’s my cohort, that’s my data! I was enrolling in Community Nursery School for several days per week in 1991, thanks to my mother and her high school diploma. This was just another  moment in a series of moments in which I understood how much my parents had sacrificed to send all three of us to top-notch educational programs from the start, and how statistically surprising our outcomes are (by this June, we’ll be three for three of Masters degrees, all achieved immediately after college. While this does defy trend in education coming from two parents without college degrees, if you knew how awesome my parents were, this would not really be a surprise).

But this drove home to me the fact that the opportunities I’ve had to challenge myself and excel should not be a statistical anomaly, and that the correlation between parent’s education and child’s education only continues a cycle of economic outcomes that slow our progress as individuals and as a nation. How helpful it would have been for my parents not to have to pay that tuition for pre-K! My mom stayed home with us; her choice to enroll us was out of concern that we socialize with children our own age and get the all-important soft skills that make successful students down the line.  The fact that by 2005, these enrollment rates for the children of high school educated mothers was still only at 63% (lagging behind the 87% of moms with college or higher, but better than the 55% for moms who did not finish high school) means there is still so much work to do – families who can afford pre-K still don’t know for sure that they can find quality education in their area that works for their schedules, while low- and middle-income families face those issues, compounded with very real calculations on  how to balance the needs of their children and what they can afford.

There will be political conversations now as to what happens next with this proposal, as details emerge, advocates weigh in, and politicians take sides. I’m optimistic that progress toward a federal early education program will break through the strict ideological boundaries that are too often drawn in our modern politics. The President didn’t wade far into his plan this evening, but his words were direct and meaningful:

“In states that make it a priority to educate our youngest children, like Georgia or Oklahoma, studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, and form more stable families of their own. So let’s do what works, and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance.”

The more I learn in this field, the more I understand how lucky I was to have that chance that put me on a strong path to education. I feel privileged to work every day to push for quality programs that give other kids that opportunity.

As a past child, as a current researcher, and as a (hopefully) future parent: early education is just too important to leave to chance.

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