Mr. President, you're forgetting one thing: Educating our children

As the nation steps away from the cliff of another government shutdown and our policy leaders extend their quarrel about the southern border, here at home, an underpaid early educator is on a school supply run buying materials with their own funds and a child’s parents are up late trying to finagle the numbers so they can afford to send their child to “the good preschool” in a neighboring community.

The nation’s leaders proclaim to care about the kids, but now that this impasse has been averted, it is time to move beyond lip service. Members of Congress and the president should turn their attention to a real crisis risking the future competitiveness of the country: the underinvestment in high-quality education — and especially early education — for all.

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On Feb. 5, 2019, President TrumpDonald John TrumpThe Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - House panel expected to approve impeachment articles Thursday Democrats worried by Jeremy Corbyn's UK rise amid anti-Semitism Warren, Buttigieg duke it out in sprint to 2020 MORE addressed the nation and declared the State of the Union strong. But something was conspicuously absent. Education, specifically early education, is a fundamental necessity in any strong union, or nation, and yet, was a missing piece of the president’s address. He touted the United States' military might, the nation’s technological advances, and its thriving economy. Historic achievements by women in the workforce, and in the new Congress, was emphasized.

Laying out a broad agenda, President Trump included a global initiative focused on empowering women in developing countries, lowering the costs of health care and prescription drugs, and protecting the rights of patients with pre-existing conditions. He set a goal to eliminate HIV within 10 years and prioritized a cure for childhood cancer; he even championed a national paid family leave initiative and announced Americans will once again return to space — on American rockets. 

Throughout the entirety of his speech, there were key themes including the value of research and technological advances. Over the last century, technology has led to innovative growth and advancements that drive a stronger economy. However, the fundamental and necessary means to achieve these advancements were noticeably absent — a strong, national education system.

In order to lead global competitors in research and development, the United States must employ a knowledgeable workforce, capable of meeting demand. Growing a prosperous and stable economy includes individuals making a livable wage, contributing to local businesses and paying taxes. At the end of the day, regardless of profession, be it academia, a skilled trade, white or blue collar, education is essential. And when education is absent from the president’s priorities, the nation suffers.

For years, researchers and advocates alike have stressed the long-term impacts of investing in high-quality early education. A 2014 Executive report on The Economics of Early Childhood Investments found early education “programs have been shown to increase earnings and employment for parents. In the long-run, the programs can benefit participants and society by increasing the earnings and employment of participants, improving health, reducing anti-poverty spending, and reducing crime.” A 2004 study conducted by the Rand Corporation found, “[the] evidence base sheds light on the types of programs that have been demonstrated to be effective…and the potential for returns to society that exceed the resources invested in program delivery.” The study further found an up to $17.07 return to society for each dollar invested in early education – other studies have demonstrated the returns are even higher when investments are made for underserved populations.

A 2008 Brookings report on the Impacts of Early Childhood Programs emphasized decades of research underscoring long-term language, cognitive, and social skill gains among populations of young children exposed to early education programs. Just last month, researchers at Duke University released a new report, Evaluation of North Carolina Early Childhood Program Among Middle School Students, finding that positive impacts from high-quality early education — such as higher test scores and fewer placements into special education — are not only sustained through middle school, but actually grow.

Moreover, Nobel Laureate James Heckman found investments in early education, particularly among disadvantaged groups and females, proved to be both cost-effective and impactful in opportunities later in life. In other words, when children from underserved communities have access to early education programs, they often thrive and overcome long-term negative societal and economic obstacles. Heckman’s research further found investments had a two-generation effect on workforce, particularly for women via increased earnings and access to employment — a result consistent with President Trump’s goal of increasing global economic empowerment of women.

With the aforementioned in mind, it is incumbent upon the administration and this Congress to ensure that in the months to follow, any fiscal 2020 appropriations package includes substantial investments into early education. If America is going to be the global leader in technology, military, space exploration, economic advancements and freedom, it must start with investments in the classroom.

Mark Reilly is the vice president of policy & government relations of Jumpstart, a national early education nonprofit.