Addressing Inequity in Early Childhood Education

By Megan Carolan

“That’s not fair!”

It’s a familiar refrain on the preschool playground, but this week it is the U.S. Department of Education sounding the alarm in a new report A Matter of Equity: Preschool in America. Drawing heavily from data from NIEER’s 2013 preschool Yearbook, the report proclaims that roughly 60 percent of America’s 4-year-olds do not have access to publicly-funded pre-K; this includes state-funded pre-K, Head Start, and special education. Clearly, not all U.S. children have access to programs that we know can start them on the right path for success in school. Further, the report makes clear that significant differences in program offerings by state create an unfair situation in which what children get depends on where their parents live.

Unmet Need Map

Image Source: A Matter of Equity: Preschool in America. U.S. Department of Education. Published April 7, 2015. Available at: http://www2.ed.gov/documents/early-learning/matter-equity-preschool-america.pdf

As a whole, the South exceeds most regions in providing early childhood education to its children. Mississippi had historically been the only state in the region not to provide state-funded pre-K, but started a small, high-quality program in the 2013-2014 school year.

Enrollment numbers, however, tell only half the story. For example, South Carolina served 49 percent of its 4-year-olds in a publicly-funded program in 2012-2013. While the program has tremendous reach, it is clear that many more students could benefit from access to pre-K. At the same time, adults in the state need to ensure that children receive the best quality care and education. As ICS’ Vice President Joe Waters and I noted in a recent op-ed, South Carolina has the opportunity to improve its 4K program to brighten children’s futures:

“Program effects varied significantly from district to district by the time these children took their 3rd grade math tests. While local control is essential to education, the state must ensure that 4K teachers in all districts have the resources they need to get the job done right, including access to top-notch professional development. The need for further emphasis on math is particularly important, as the Education Oversight Committee’s report stressed that math achievement gaps persist even for those children who participate in the program.”

High-quality pre-K programs, of course, do not grow on trees. They require significant resources, though we know research shows the programs more than pay for themselves down the line. They require spaces big enough for kids to run around and dream fantastic ideas. They need well-trained teachers who can turn everyday moments into learning moments. And they need a coalition of grown-ups in the state supporting these efforts and making sure all of our children have the opportunity to thrive.

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