Expanding opportunity for America’s young learners

Imagine that you’re about to run in a competitive race, and as you approach the starting line, the referee announces that you can’t begin until everyone else is a mile ahead.

 That unfairness is the reality for millions of disadvantaged children in America who can’t begin kindergarten at the same educational starting line as children from better-off families. Fortunately, Congress has a rare opportunity to act in a bipartisan fashion to help level the playing field and fulfill the American promise of providing equal educational opportunity to all young children.

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 President Obama’s landmark Preschool for All plan would create a new federal-state partnership to expand access to high-quality preschool to all 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families, up to 200 percent of the poverty line. It would also provide incentives for states to serve additional children from middle-class families.

 The administration is committed to providing every child a fair chance in life and to creating ladders of opportunity for those striving to get into the middle class. The Preschool for All plan is guided by that commitment, and many governors — Democrats and Republicans alike — are already moving to expand high-quality state preschool programs.

 It is no secret that the early years of a child’s life are crucial for building the foundation to succeed later in life. Yet many children lack access to high-quality preschool in America.

 Fewer than 3 in 10 4-year-olds attend a high-quality preschool program. On average, children from disadvantaged families start kindergarten 12 to 14 months behind their peers in both language development and pre-reading. That’s no way to prepare our children to compete in the global economy.

 By failing to address the shortage of high-quality preschool for decades, our country has lost ground both at home and abroad.

 High-performing countries know the economic value of investing in high-quality early learning. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development reports that the United States ranks 28th among developed countries in its enrollment of 4-year-olds in early-learning programs.

 By contrast, the United Kingdom enrolls 97 percent of its 4-year-olds in preschool. Japan — which has outperformed the United States in recent international assessments — enrolls nearly 100 percent of its 4-year-olds in preschool.

 Contrary to the claims of some critics, the president’s plan would not be a new federal entitlement program. States would use federal funds to create or expand high-quality preschool programs in partnership with local school-based and community providers.

Every dollar of the $75 billion provided by the federal government over the next 10 years would be paid for by increases in taxes on cigarettes and tobacco products, providing an added bonus of discouraging hundreds of thousands of youths from taking up smoking.

 Unlike many of the issues that divide Congress today along partisan lines, Republican and Democratic governors across the country are expanding high-quality preschool for 4-year-olds already.

 In Michigan, I visited the site of the Perry Child Development Center earlier this week with Republican Gov. Rick Snyder, who has proposed a 60 percent increase in funding for the state preschool program — this would both increase the quality of preschool providers and open spaces for 16,000 additional children.

 In Alabama, Gov. Robert Bentley, also a Republican, has asked for a 65 percent increase in preschool funding to cover an additional 2,200 4-year olds. In fact, 27 governors — Democrats and Republicans alike — referenced early learning in their State of the State addresses this year.

 It’s not just state officials that are investing in high-quality preschool — voters from both political parties are approving tax increases to support preschool initiatives. Last November, voters in Denver, San Antonio, Texas, and St. Paul, Minn., all voted in favor of tax increases to fund preschool programs in their communities.

 Investing in early education also has a big return on investment. James Heckman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, found a return of $7 to every $1 of public investment in high-quality preschool programs in his analysis of rigorous, longitudinal data from the Perry Preschool Project.

 In the short term, high-quality early education reduces placement in special education and decreases grade retention. In the long term, it can help students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate from high school and hold a steady job.

In 1971, the U.S. Congress enacted a law that provided free, universal access to early-childhood services and child care for children from low-income families. President Nixon vetoed that law.

 In the 42 years since then, the evidence that high-quality early learning works has multiplied many times over, and our international competitors have rapidly expanded their preschool programs.

 As Republican Gov. Tom Corbett said in his State of the State address this year, “why do we want to spend more on these programs? Because every child in Pennsylvania deserves an equal start in life — and I intend to see that promise kept.”

 We cannot let this opportunity pass to fulfill that promise of providing equal educational opportunity. America’s children cannot wait another 42 years. Now is the time for Congress to act.

Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education.