More funding for pre-kindergarten, Pell Grants, means a brighter future

Of course, reforming and improving K-12 education is a top priority. We can’t underfund our schools, inaccurately measure student progress, and expect success. And like many of my colleagues, I look forward to the opportunity to enact real reform when we take up the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

But it’s not enough to give every child a good K-12 education. We have to make sure that every child shows up for the first day of kindergarten ready to learn and ready to succeed — which means investing in early childhood education. And we have to make sure that every high school graduate in Connecticut and across the nation, regardless of his or her family’s income, has the chance to go to college — which means revitalizing the Pell Grant program that has given so many students that chance.

The case for early childhood education is easy to make. Study after study shows what we all instinctively know to be true — early learning and development prepare kids to succeed when they enter kindergarten. But these studies also suggest a number of other dividends: better academic performance throughout their school careers, better employment opportunities, higher earnings, less crime and dependence on public welfare, even improved health.

The federal government provides some funding for early childhood education through the Child Care and Development Block Grant (which funds programs for nearly 10,000 children in Connecticut alone) and Head Start (which serves more than 8,000 kids in my state) — but funding for those programs has fallen in recent years.

However, we have begun to renew our commitment to early childhood education by finding ways to make early learning a reality for every American family. I’ve suggested establishing a competitive grant program to sponsor public-private partnerships in the 50 states, so that government, non-profit organizations, and private entities can work together in creating high-quality early childhood development programs. Ideas like these are already working well in some states, including Connecticut, and we should work with states to build on this innovative thinking.

Early childhood education provides children with the opportunities and tools they need to excel.  But if we really want to equip our kids with the tools they need to prosper, we must make a college education affordable for everyone. Statistics indicate that a college degree can be worth as much as $1 million in additional earning power over a student’s lifetime. For decades, Pell Grants have been critically important tools to help kids take that step.

Unfortunately, college has gotten more expensive — and Pell Grants haven’t kept up. In 1975, a Pell Grant paid for about 80 percent of the average student’s tuition, fees, and room and board at a public university. Now it pays for less than a third. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of American kids who are admitted to college have to decline because they can’t afford it.

That’s wrong. If you’re a young American who studies hard and wants to go to college, you should be able to do so. And if you’re a parent, working long hours to make a better life for your family, you should be able to give your child that opportunity.

Therefore, I’ve continued to fight to expand the amount of the Pell Grant and make it available to more lower-and middle-income students — and ensure that as the price of tuition increases, so does our support for students. And I believe we must increase funding enough that every student who qualifies for this assistance is able to get it. In my home state of Connecticut, these reforms could allow nearly 2,000 additional students to receive Pell Grants in the first year.

These steps will cost money. But I can’t imagine a better investment — in our kids and in our economy — than equipping the next generation of Americans with the tools to succeed. The statistics are clear and unambiguous: These investments pay off exponentially in the long run.

More important than these statistics, however, is that opportunity has always been at the heart of the American story. We believe that if you work hard and dream big, anything is possible. If we really mean that, we must invest in a world-class education — beginning with our youngest and continuing through college — for every American child.

Dodd is a senior member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, and chairman of the Subcommittee on Children and Families.