President Obama on the national level and Gov. Deval Patrick on the state level are both proposing to dramatically expand early childhood education programs to strengthen what is considered a cornerstone to future success.
The governor’s plan would make early childhood education available to every child in the state, and address a waitlist that has grown to more than 30,000 children. Much of the debate has focused on the tax increases the governor has proposed to pay for the expansion, but few have questioned the value of ensuring that children enter kindergarten with the skills they need to thrive.
For the past 20 years, the state has invested billions of dollars and enacted reforms to improve K-12 public education and close stubborn race and income-based achievement gaps. Investing in high quality early education programs would attack the achievement gap before it forms.
Learning differences between low-income and affluent children become apparent as early as age 2. One study found that by age 4, the children of professionals have heard a stunning 32 million more words than their less affluent counterparts. Furthermore, research also shows that children exposed to high levels of environmental stress — stress that children in poverty are likely to experience — have lower “executive function” skills. These skills allow children to listen to and remember directions, ignore distractions and stay on task, and control their emotions. All of these skills are fundamental to both academic and social success later in life.
There are few places that universal early childhood education would help more than Lawrence, which faces daunting challenges caused by rampant poverty.
One-third of Lawrence children between the ages of 5 and 17 live in poverty. Almost the same share of the city’s young children enter kindergarten without having developed age-appropriate early literacy and numeracy skills; most of these children will continue to have difficulty meeting grade-level learning goals throughout the early elementary years.
Third-grade reading scores are a leading indicator of future academic success. Yet, one in five Lawrence third graders failed the Grade 3 Reading MCAS last year, while only one-third scored proficient or advanced.
The long-term consequences are obvious and devastating. Lawrence High School’s 49 percent four-year graduation rate is the lowest in Massachusetts. As a result, fully one-third of city residents age 25 and above lack a high-school diploma. Among Latinos, who make up about 70 percent of Lawrence’s population, more than 40 percent lack a high-school diploma.
Last year, the state stepped in to assume control of the school system and appoint a strong receiver, who has already made bold moves to reform the city’s public schools.
As an early education and care provider for the past 45 years, and the operator of three pre-K-to-8 charter public schools, The Community Group has demonstrated that high quality early childhood education experiences provide Lawrence children with a foundation that supports their academic achievement.
Today, we serve more than 1,000 children at nine child-care centers and 60 family-based locations, all of which are licensed by the commonwealth. If Gov. Patrick’s proposal is adopted, thousands more Lawrence 3- and 4-year-olds would have access to the same opportunities.
High quality early childhood education changes the trajectory of children’s futures. When problems are diagnosed early, they can usually be resolved more quickly and less expensively. Data compiled by the AppleTree Institute, which runs a Washington, D.C., charter school that serves 640 3- and 4-year olds at seven city campuses, finds that only 3 percent of the students who complete their program require special education later on, compared to 17 percent of all Washington public school students. The city’s annual cost per special education student is $64,000, compared to $17,000 for each regular education student. That annual difference of nearly $50,000 between the cost of delivering regular and special education translates to savings of nearly $600,000 over the K-12 career of each student who would otherwise have required special education.
In his recent state-of-the-union address, President Obama noted that every dollar invested in high quality early education saves more than $7 later by laying the foundation for better academic performance and higher productivity, not to mention less reliance on public services and lower levels of violent crime.
Few investments offer the kind of returns society reaps from high quality universal early childhood education. And with at-risk children making the greatest gains, few communities would benefit more than Lawrence.
Sheila Balboni is the executive director of The Community Group, which operates early education and child-care programs and three pre-K-8 charter public schools in Lawrence, and has also partnered with the state receiver to manage the city’s Arlington Elementary School.