From new backpacks to sharp pencils, parents across the country are doing their best to cross the items off their children’s back-to-school checklists. They want to be sure that when the first day of school comes, their children will have everything they need to be ready to start and ready to learn. But as a country we’re failing to do the same thing and in the current budget debate, some of our leaders are threatening to do just the opposite.
Instead of budgeting our limited resources wisely so we’ll be able to stock up on the things we know our children need, some shrill, ideologically driven leaders are hijacking the political process and trying to grab money out of our children’s small piggybanks and spend it on more gift cards for big corporations and billionaires. No new tax pledges have been signed by 277 members of Congress throwing the entire weight of debt reduction on children, our poorest Americans, the homeless, jobless, helpless, and a middle class treading water and trying to stay afloat.
We know that between birth and age five, children learn social, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive skills that set the foundation for academic success. Factors including poverty and the “lottery of geography” create barriers to young children’s healthy development. Cognitive gaps emerge between children from families with low and higher incomes as early as nine months, and more often than not, these children are unable to catch up by the time they enter kindergarten. The resulting achievement gap increases over time and often propels children into the cradle to prison pipeline – especially if they are poor children of color.
Quality child care and early childhood educational experiences are crucial to giving children a sound start in life – but they are still out of reach for many families. Although child care is a necessity for many families with working parents, the annual cost of center-based child care for a four-year-old is more than the annual in-state tuition at a public four-year college in 33 states and the District of Columbia. In 18 states, a family must have an income below 175 percent of the poverty level (below $32,043 for a family of four) to receive a public child care subsidy. Only 13.8 percent of three-year-olds and 38.9 percent of four-year-olds were in state-funded pre-kindergarten programs, Head Start, or early intervention/special education in 2008-2009 and only 10 states require all schools districts to offer full day kindergarten to get children ready for school.
Without positive early childhood experiences, it is easy for children to fall behind in school and American education, which used to be the envy of the world, is in dire straits. Many public school students, kindergarten through 12th grade, are struggling; children of color and poor children struggle most. More than 60 percent of all fourth, eighth, and 12th grade public school students and nearly 80 percent or more of Black and Hispanic public school students in the same grades are reading or doing math below grade level. The U.S. ranks 24th among 30 developed countries on overall educational achievement for 15-year-olds, and in a study of education systems in 60 countries, we ranked 31st in math achievement and 23rd in science achievement for 15-year-olds. Too often children fall behind in school and drop out, increasing their risk of entering the cradle to prison pipeline. Staying in school and receiving a quality education are the best deterrents to juvenile delinquency and the surest route towards responsible, productive adulthood. Yet almost half of our states spend on average more than three times as much per prisoner as per public school pupil. I can’t think of a dumber investment policy, one that hurts countless children and families every day.
It’s clear we’re not getting our children what they need to be ready for and to succeed in school and to learn all that we need them to know in order to keep our workforce, military, and country strong in the future. It’s time for every voter to tell those shrill partisan and ideologically driven extremists that America’s children are not to be sacrificial lambs on the altar of their destructive agendas. If we saw parents spending money to buy themselves a private jet but sending their child to school unprepared, hungry, and empty-handed, we would be shocked and furious at how misguided their priorities were. Why should any of our nation’s leaders be allowed to make the same choice?
Marian Wright Edelman is a lifelong advocate for disadvantaged Americans and is the President of the Children's Defense Fund (CDF). Under her leadership, CDF has become the nation's strongest voice for children and families.