Invest in children

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When I heard President Obama propose to work with states “to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America,” I instantly thought of a conversation I’d had with businessman Michael Dermody back in 1987. He was excited about the findings of the HighScope Perry Preschool Study that clearly demonstrated that early education saves $7 for every $1 it costs because as adults these children commit fewer crimes, have fewer babies in their teens, are more likely to be employed, and earn much larger salaries over time.

Mr. Dermody was impressed with this return on investment, as any rational businessman would be, and it was one of the main reasons the Children’s Cabinet created the Child Care Resource and Referral program and began investing its energy and resources in early childhood education.

Almost 30 years later, President Obama surprised me and many advocates by calling for universal preschool for every 4-year-old in the country, citing two states we don’t often think of as progressive: Georgia and Oklahoma. In 1995, Georgia became the first state with universal preschool, funded by a state lottery. Oklahoma has had universal preschool since 1998, and has shown demonstrable improvements in students’ academic, cognitive and emotional abilities.

The Obama preschool plan will create a new federal-state cost-sharing partnership to guarantee high-quality preschool for all low- and moderate-income 4-year-olds, including families that earn up to 200 percent of the poverty level. Other families will be able to pay on a sliding scale with incentives for full-day kindergarten.

The Department of Education will allocate the federal funds to states based on a population formula and an agreement to use standards that include “well-trained teachers, who are paid comparably to K-12 staff,” as well as small class sizes and a “rigorous” curriculum.

Criticism of universal pre-school predictably comes from the far-right, led by former Sen. Rick Santorum who insists that early childhood education “indoctrinates” children and makes them “dependent on government at an early age.” During his failed presidential campaign, he called the idea a “ploy for socialists to take your children from the womb so they can indoctrinate your children as to what they want them to be.”

More mainstream critics cite funding as the major objection, with the Center for American Progress estimating the president’s plan would cost about $98 billion over 10 years. The Center also correctly points out the reason why so many low-income families do not currently utilize high-quality pre-school: cost. Families who earn less than $1,500 a month would have to spend about 53 percent of their income on pre-school, an unreasonable proposition when there is rent to be paid and basic needs to be provided.

Returning to Nevada, we naturally maintain a firm hold on last place in education rankings, according to the 2012 Kids Count Report, as 71 percent of our 3- and 4-year-olds are not enrolled in preschool, while 44 percent of our high school students drop out before graduation. We constantly hear griping from business leaders about the unprepared workforce and many are quick to blame greedy teachers, distracted parents and unmotivated students, when really the answer is as clear today as it was to Michael Dermody back in 1987.

So how about it, Gov. Sandoval? Now would be the time to contact the president and tell him we’re ready to move Nevada out of last place by designing a powerful, high-quality universal pre-school program. Let Nevada lead the way with a dedicated funding source, perhaps copying Georgia’s state lottery idea, and show the nation we’re ready to invest in our children. Let’s attract quality businesses the old-fashioned way, with an enviable pre-K to college educational system that values its teachers and students.

Don’t you think that would be a legacy worth having?