Leveraging America’s Diversity: Invest in Our Children
Across the country, the faces of America’s babies are different than they were a generation ago. For the first time last year, minorities accounted for the majority of births in America. According to the Census Bureau, Hispanics are among the fastest growing populations in America. One in five children under the age of 5 in the U.S. is Hispanic, and that figure will increase to one in four by 2030. In California, Hispanic children already make up the majority (53 percent) of children under the age of five.
America’s diversity – its unique strength – also comes with challenges to ensure that as a country we provide all children from diverse backgrounds the full and equal opportunity to succeed and to have the opportunity to make our country stronger.
This challenge reinforces the importance of investing in education for our youngest children. Investing in high-quality preschool education would help close the opportunity gap and give our diverse children a strong start.
Hispanic children bear the disproportionate burden of poverty, making up the largest group of children living in poverty (nearly 6 million). Poverty also runs deeper among younger Hispanic children: they are 2.5 times more likely to live in poverty than their white peers, and nearly 2 million Hispanic children under five (more than a third of all such children) experience poverty.
It does not take an expert to understand the devastating impact that poverty has on a child’s early development and future opportunities. Most Hispanic children enter kindergarten already six months behind their peers and, subsequently, are less likely to complete high school.
These grim statistics provide a window into what the future may hold for a generation that will soon become the backbone of our economy and workforce.
The good news is that states and localities across the country now see the need for strong education for our youngest children. The rest of the country stands to benefit from their experience.
In 1998, the Oklahoma state legislature massively expanded funding for full-day preschool and today, nearly three-quarters of Oklahoma’s 4-year-olds are enrolled in preschool.
Since then, researchers have studied children in Tulsa and found that those enrolled in preschool gained nine months on their peers in pre-reading and seven months in pre-writing abilities. Most noticeably, while the poorest children demonstrated strong academic improvement, Hispanic children made the greatest gains in early literacy skills and problem solving.
In a similar study of high-quality Educare Schools across the country, including Tulsa, Oklahoma, both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking children demonstrated improvements in school readiness, vocabulary skills, and social and emotional development; the gains were even greater for children who enrolled before the age of two.
In San Antonio, Texas, where 63 percent of residents are Hispanic, voters approved an eighth-of-a-cent sales tax increase to finance the city’s $248 million “Pre-K for SA” program. This program will expand access to full-day, high-quality preschool for low- and middle-income children.
And the introduction of the Strong Start for America’s Children Act last month is another indication that nationally, early education is an issue people are thinking more and more about.
With America’s rapidly changing demographics, this newfound push for expanding access to high-quality preschool is more important than ever.
Investing in preschool would bring opportunity to thousands of low-income and minority children in states across the country, and its benefits would extend broadly. A study by the MIT Workplace Center shows that taxpayers save up to $13 for every dollar spent on early childhood education through reductions in remedial education, higher worker productivity, and lower grade repetition.
Furthermore, children who participate in high-quality early learning programs are less likely to break the law, abuse narcotics, and face criminal charges, and are more likely to find better jobs as adults.
Unfortunately, the families who stand to benefit the most from preschool are also the ones who currently lack the greatest access. Although Hispanic families overwhelmingly support universal preschool (96 percent) and believe it will better prepare their children for kindergarten (95 percent), 63 percent of Hispanic children ages three to four do not attend preschool.
The opportunity for young children to succeed begins early, both within the home and at school. For the rest of the nation, now is the time to take action and improve the educational, financial, and health outcomes of our most vulnerable children.