By Kris Perry
A version of this column was first published in the Independent Journal Review.
There’s a long tradition of candidates kissing babies while on the campaign trail. Today’s presidential candidates would be wise to extend that embrace by making sure each child gets a strong start in life through quality early childhood education. We know, from the results of the First Five Years Fund’s latest bipartisan national poll, that Americans believe early childhood education is the number two priority in this election after improving the quality of public education. Democrats, Republicans and Independents all support investing in our children during their early years.
Tonight is the first of the highly anticipated presidential debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. We think Americans will tune into the debate in unprecedented numbers. That’s why tonight’s debate stands as an opportune time to discuss this issue. What could be more important than focusing on our children, especially when research shows early education creates better education, health, social and economic outcomes for children and society?
The public understands what research has shown for years: the first five years of life are the foundation for a child’s future achievement and life trajectory. Motor skills, learning, analyzing, vocabulary, communication and social development are made possible through 700 new connections between neurons in the brain every second during the first three years of life.
That’s why investing in parental education and high-quality learning and care from birth to age five is so critical to making sure children become confident learners, good playmates and schoolmates and, eventually, highly productive and successful adults.
The achievement gaps we see as early as kindergarten are created by gaps in a family’s resources necessary to foster strong early childhood development. For example, a child living in poverty is exposed to roughly 30 million words less than a child from a middle- or upper-income family by the time she reaches her 5th birthday.
America spends a great deal of money trying to close this achievement gap through its K-12 education system, most often with only marginal success. A far better strategy is to prevent it by providing greater voluntary access to quality early childhood education programs, especially for disadvantaged children. Those who receive early childhood education are more likely to do better in school, graduate, attend college, have full-time employment and live healthy, independent lives.
Voters want to see that change. Even in the midst of an angry and polarized election, 90% of voters agree on one thing: Congress and the next president should work together to make quality early childhood education more accessible and affordable to low- and middle-income families. That includes 78% of Trump supporters and 97% of Clinton supporters.
So as Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump meet tonight to discuss their plans for the future of our country, they shouldn’t forget that what voters really want is quality early childhood education for America’s children. They should discuss their thoughts and plans for how they would prioritize early childhood education programs. They should pledge greater federal support for state and locally administered programs for infants, toddlers and preschoolers. And then they can kiss babies.