Wavering on early education could ruin our future

President Obama at Yeadon Head Start in 2011. (Michael S. Wirtz / Staff Photographer)

In his 2013 State of the Union Address, President Obama emphasized the need to give our kids a chance by making high quality-preschool available to every child . His message echoed that of Former President Lyndon B. Johnson, who in his 1964 State of the Union address resolved to begin the War on Poverty and from this birthed the Office of Head Start. From a public health perspective, resolving to invest in our future by increasing access to early childhood education for all children, is a good thing supported by both data and our values as a society.

Sadly, however, hopes for universal pre-school have been dashed for the moment.

Sequestration, the budget-slashing result of both parties’ failure to reach a more palatable deficit-cutting compromise, has led to 5% funding cuts for all current Head Start programs, not to mention the President’s proposed expansion. This particular sequestration cut translates to the projected loss of $11.6 million in Head Start funding from Pennsylvania’s economy and more than 200 Head Start-related jobs. Worst of all, up to 2,300 commonwealth children will lose access to Head Start and Early Head Start services. New Jersey will be cut by $7.6 millionand a loss of access for 1,300 children (nationwide, Head Start will cover 70,000 fewer children).

Early childhood education is important because it forms the foundation for the growth and development of well-adjusted and productive individuals by focusing on cognition; language; social and emotional development, and physical health at a critical time. And it is a key determinant of health in a child as well as in the adult that he or she will grow up to be. The association between education and health as well as those between education and income is well-documented -- early childhood education is an imperative.

Children are not small adults. Birth to age three is a crucial period for growth and development. Environmental and social experiences during this time have lifelong effects on health and learning because children’s neurological and other biological pathways are also developing. Researchers have found that many of the health disparities seen in later life stem from exposures and experiences that occurred during early childhood development. We know that these disparities continue to exist despite the latest innovations in medicine. Addressing their root causes is the only solution – and it requires a concerted effort and multi-disciplinary interventions.

The most important for language development is the first year of life, and disparities resulting from unstable households or low socio-economic status are even noticeable even at this early stage. By age three the gaps widen significantly. In addition, infants learn problem-solving skills through play, and various activities in different settings are essential for cognitive development; all of this may be deficient in low-income families.

Compared to people in other age groups, more individuals under age 3 live in poverty and are more likely to experience developmental problems. Early childhood education helps to mitigate the disparities caused by poverty. Programs like Early Head Start, which serves pregnant women and children from birth to three years, offer services through individualized plans to children and their families. A study done in 2003 found that Early Head Start programs that provided both center- and home-based services for families resulted in better outcomes in terms of language, social and emotional development in the children and improved parenting behaviors in the caregivers.

The benefits do not end there. Longitudinal studies have found that children enrolled in early childhood education programs exhibited fewer health problems in adolescence and were less likely to suffer from depression and had fewer hospitalizations in the previous year  when compared to children not enrolled in early childhood education programs. Investing in early childhood education programs provides one way of leveling the playing field for the next generation. This will equip them not only intellectually but also physically -- important stepping stones to becoming healthy and productive citizens.

2010 Census data showed that 18.8% of Pennsylvania’s children were living in poverty, up from 15.9% in 2007. In New Jersey, 14.3% of all children were living in poverty with 15% of children six years old or younger living on less than 100% of the federal poverty level. And in Philadelphia, based on 2010 data, 6% of the population was under the age of 5 -- and only 6% of those children were enrolled in a preschool or early childhood education program. Gov. Corbett, in his proposed 2013-2014 budget proposes appropriateing $1billion for education, including a 5% increase for pre-kindergarten.

The next step would be to encourage Congress to work toward a compromise resolution that includes both revenue generation and spending cuts. It is important that we act responsibly to ensure that sufficient funds are allocated both in Washington and Harrisburg so that our children -- our most vulnerable citizens -- do not suffer disproportionately. 

Bette Begleiter is deputy executive director and Mazvita Nyamukapa is executive assistant of the Maternity Care Coalition,  a Philadelphia nonprofit that works to improve maternal and child health and well-being.


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