Simons: California needs early childhood education

This piece originally appeared in the Mercury News.

The children were dancing when I walked through the door of the transitional kindergarten classroom in east Menlo Park where I volunteer as a storyteller for Bring Me a Book. A dark-eyed girl took my hand, and we pirouetted until the young teacher called the children to the floor where they gathered around me. It was perfect. My book was all about music and dancing.

“Who knows what ‘rhythm’ means?” I asked, and 20 little hands were in the air before I had even finished the question.

As I was leaving, Sophia Jimenez, the teacher, whispered to me that she was worried about the future of her class- transitional kindergarten, the new grade that was created four years ago to serve as a bridge between preschool and kindergarten. She had heard rumors that funding might be going away. I assured her California would never de-fund such an exemplary program, one that has already shown promising results in a rigorous evaluation, and was now part of the K-12 system.

But that was last month.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s new proposed education budget threatens to decimate transitional kindergarten, which would leave 125,000 children without access to this vital program. Not only that, but it provides no new funding for our youngest learners, leaving thousands of low income children without access to any early education or childcare.

The governor’s new proposal is particularly stinging because during the recession, California slashed more than $1 billion in early childhood education and childcare, plunging tens of thousands of children into uncertain, possibly unsafe, situations. Although a fraction of that funding has been restored, a significant shortfall remains.

This is a heartbreaking missed opportunity, and one that is likely to be costly for the state in the long run.

We know that getting children off to the right start with a strong early learning program makes all the difference in their lives, making them more likely to graduate from high school – and less likely to be held back in school, placed in special education, have teen pregnancies, or be sent to prison.

These factors, and others, explain why the return on investment of high quality early childhood education has been pegged at $7 to $1 by Nobel Laureate economist James Heckman, and why such investments contribute to communities being more livable and prosperous, as well as children doing better in school, and in life.

Quality early childhood education levels the playing field and narrows the achievement gap, which begins well before kindergarten. This is not surprising, considering that children begin learning from the moment they are born. But the depth of that learning is greatly influenced by the interactions they have with the adults who care for and educate them.

Making sure every child has access to quality early childhood education is a fundamental social justice issue – one in which the young stakeholders have zero agency. Children rely on adults whom they can only hope have their best interests at heart.

Sometimes they don’t.

Instead of investing in our early childhood system to give that child what she needs, California continues to pull money out of the system, leaving already cash-strapped families with ever-greater challenges in finding affordable, quality education settings for their children.

Last week, I returned to my transitional kindergarten class for my last day as a volunteer this school year. My book was the old classic, “Curious George.”

“Who knows what ‘curious’ means?” I asked. I was surprised and impressed by the eloquence of one little girl’s answer.

“It’s when something seems odd and you don’t know what it is and you want to find out,” she said.

That little girl’s answer encapsulated what learning is all about: a hunger for finding out, a curiosity about something unexplained that can only be satisfied by educators who have the capacity to lead children on journeys of discovery, educators like Sophia.

“Teachers in later grades don’t always have time to work on the skills that are lifetime skills,” Sophia told me as we distributed “Curious George” books to the children. “Here they’re our primary focus.”

If we want to raise a generation of children endowed with lifetime skills who can rise to the challenges of the world we are bequeathing them, we have to nurture their curiosity and give them the educational resources they need from the very beginning- when so much is at stake, and everything is possible.

Liz Simons is Chair of the Board of the Los Altos-based Heising-Simons Foundation and a supporter of Save the Children Action Network, which seeks to increase access to early learning across the United States. She wrote this for the Mercury News.