We Shouldn’t Treat Preschool Like Valentine’s Day

Ahh Valentine’s Day.  The day of love.  The day when flower shops, candy shops, and restaurants do remarkably well.  But I must admit I’m not a big fan of Valentine’s Day.  Sure, I love reminding my loved ones how much I care about them on this day, but I also find it rather silly to single out one day a year that we express our love and appreciation for our loved ones who stand by us every day.  I have similar feelings about singling out four-year-old preschool in budget and program conversations about improving school readiness, and here’s why.

In President Obama’s State of the Union address on Tuesday, he called for universal access to preschool, and anticipated details of this plan include expansion to high quality early learning programs that span the birth to five continuum.  This comes on the heels of Governor Snyder’s state budget presentation for fiscal year 2014 that calls for a substantial expansion for the Great Start Readiness Preschool program (GSRP) – Michigan’s preschool program for four-year-olds at-risk of starting school behind.  (Learn more about what the Governor’s budget means for young children in our Budget Basics report).

We know access to high quality preschool is an evidence-based strategy towards reducing an achievement gap – a gap that begins early and can build over time without the appropriate prevention and intervention strategies.  GSRP has proven to reduce disparities in student achievement including reducing the readiness gap at kindergarten, improving reading proficiency for third graders (a critical benchmark for school success), and getting more young people to their high school graduations.  And in fact, children of color who participated in GSRP were three times more likely to graduate high school on-time than children of color who did not attend GSRP – proving its effectiveness in reducing disparities.

I am a huge supporter of preschool for four-year-olds, and I also think that focusing significant investment only towards four-year-olds is short-sighted.  Just like expressing love should be about more than one-day, we know that early childhood education should be about more than support for a single year.  While GSRP is geared towards four-year-olds, we know that disparities in cognitive development emerge in babies as young as nine months of age.  And for the babies and toddlers who struggled the most, one year of preschool is a huge help towards preparing them for kindergarten but it may not be quite enough to offset the challenges they faced early in life.  Even Governor Snyder acknowledges that education must focus on the entire P-20 continuum – that begins prenatally not at four-years-old – though he does not reflect this in his budget.

To lay the best foundation to build a successful education career and to reduce achievement gaps, we must begin at birth and provide support to the most challenged young families.  I applaud President Obama’s efforts to expand access to not just four-year-old preschool but also Early Head Start, quality child care, and evidence-based home visiting.  Perhaps as we advocate to ensure that the GSPR expansion stays in the final FY2014 state budget, we should also talk about some level of support for Michigan’s youngest learners – children from birth through age three – to prevent early disparities.  And perhaps as we discuss President Obama’s early childhood focus with our Congressional folks, we should discuss how any plan to offset the sequester must safeguard the federal programs that currently support infants and toddlers like the Child Care and Development Block Grant and Early Head Start.  Here at Michigan’s Children, we love preschool, and we also know that early childhood education begins before four-years of age.

-Mina Hong