Early childhood education steers kids toward success

This piece originally appeared in Colorado Community Media.

Frederick Douglass, the eminent abolitionist, author and social reformer, once said that it is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.

For me, that explains why we must expand young Coloradans’ access to early childhood education. It is the most effective way to put kids on a path to success – and avoid expensive solutions later in life.

As a former high school teacher and principal, I saw firsthand how a lack of high-quality early education impacted many of my students.

I have seen many truant students during my career. It may be easy to label them as lazy or underachievers, but I’ve realized that many of them actually love their coursework and can talk to you about their interests in the class. It’s their lack of literacy skills that doesn’t allow them to fully engage in their education.

In fact, by age 3, children in poverty hear 30 million fewer words than well-off children. It’s no wonder that children in need tend to start school developmentally far behind their peers.

Reading failure turns curious elementary students into failing middle school students and then high school dropouts.

But students who attend high-quality early learning programs, like pre-K, enter kindergarten ready to learn. And that will have positive implications for the rest of their lives.

Research has shown that the type of environment and the quality of interaction to which children are exposed in the first five years of life greatly influence the outcomes of their adult lives.

That’s because by age 5, a child’s brain is almost completely developed – yet two out of five American kids are not enrolled in preschool. Many never catch up.

And the consequences are significant and long-lasting.

If we invest today in setting a strong intellectual, cognitive and emotional foundation for children before they reach age 5, we can significantly raise the odds they will stay in and perform well in school, avoid teenage pregnancy, keep away from drug-related and violent crimes and, more generally, contribute to making our communities more livable and prosperous.

My three children are fortunate because we were able to enroll them in high-quality early learning programs. But many kids here in Colorado are not so lucky – and it varies from district to district.

In Denver, where voters elected to tax themselves to provide preschool, all families with 4-year-olds choose from more than 250 high-quality programs, and tuition assistance is available. But in other counties, options are far more limited.

Funding is a large hurdle in this debate, but investing in early childhood education results in greater success in K-12, better health outcomes and more resilient communities. And the students aren’t the only ones who will benefit. This makes economic sense.

A comprehensive, national early childhood education program would add $2 trillion to the annual GDP within a generation, according to the Brookings Institution.

And according to James Heckman, an American economist and Nobel laureate, for every dollar we invest in high-quality early learning, we get $7 back in avoiding costly interventions. This would positively impact our state’s bottom line.

For these reasons, I have been fighting to provide robust funding for early learning programs in Colorado, and across the nation.

We must find a way to give more kids the chance to a strong start in life. It all starts with a high-quality early childhood education.

This is a fight that we must undertake throughout Colorado. That’s why I was so honored to speak recently in Washington, D.C., at the Advocacy Summit, hosted by Save the Children Action Network (SCAN), where advocates from around the country gathered to learn how to be champions for kids.

SCAN is a bipartisan organization that is doing great work around the country on early childhood education. Working with organizations like this and with local providers and officials, we can increase access to early learning programs in every state.

The event’s attendees met with nearly 100 congressional offices to urge them to invest in key kids programs by asking them to sponsor Social Impact Partnership Act, which authorizes the use of a public-private partnership program called Pay for Success. This would help fund early learning programs around the country.

I was inspired to meet these incredible advocates and look forward to seeing their progress in the weeks and months ahead. I know they will not give up because they understand that investing in early childhood education makes kids more successful – and all of us reap the benefits for generations to come.

Mike Johnston is a Colorado state senator representing Denver.