A Step in the Right Direction: The Strong Start for America’s Children Act

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Lawmaking aligned with the science of early childhood last month when Senator Tom Harkin, Representative George Miller and Representative Richard Hanna introduced the Strong Start for America’s Children Act of 2013, a comprehensive early education bill that closely mirrors but also strengthens the President’s early learning proposal introduced earlier this year. The legislation, as currently proposed, would expand early learning opportunities from birth through age five, focusing on home visiting, Early Head Start partnerships and preschool program grants to states. If passed, this legislation would be a significant step forward for the entire nation, making the investments in the early years to provide all children with the best start in life possible. Additionally, there would be savings in future social costs related to education, unemployment, health, public assistance and more.

Science continues to tell us that a child’s experiences within the first three years of life directly shape his/her later performance in the classroom, adulthood, workforce and society. A child’s early interactive experiences with caregivers and their environmental surroundings provide the backdrop to which the complex and fascinating process of early human development unfolds and more than 90 percent of the brain is constructed. With development so malleable during this life stage, a tremendous opportunity presents itself to influence these experiences in a way that aligns children for lifelong success.

This science continues to be a sign of hope to me and others at Wheelock College and beyond who are devoted to improving the lives of children and families. Every child in the United States, regardless of income status, race, ethnicity, family composition and geography, can succeed with the right set of supports – a strength-based belief that has been at the heart of Wheelock College for its 125 years of existence. Access to high-quality and affordable early education and learning opportunities is a key component to that set of supports.

Currently, 39 states and the District of Columbia offer access to state-funded pre-school programs. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, where Wheelock College is based, has made significant progress in the area of early learning, creating the Department of Early Education & Care in 2005 to administer early education programs for income-qualified children, set standards for early learning and manage the licensing, safety and quality of the state’s diverse early education and care providers, among much more. As a result, the percentage of four-year-olds enrolled in early learning programs has increased from 8% to 14% from 2005 to 2012 and the state has launched a major initiative to not only increase and monitor access but also quality. The Strong Start legislation meets states where they are, helping those like Massachusetts and others with established early education programs accelerate progress while assisting states without programs with getting started through Prekindergarten Development Grants.

The legislation also makes significant strides in serving low-income children. Decreasing the number of low-income children currently placed on waitlists for programs can potentially lead them out of poverty. Under the bill, states could use federal funds to serve the four-year-olds of families with incomes at or below 200% of the federal poverty level and then begin serving three-year-olds of the same income status. This component of the legislation is particularly important as we know that low-income children face a number of developmental risk factors due to the instability typically present in their under-resourced environmental surroundings. Thus, these children will have a better chance to start kindergarten on equal footing with their middle and upper class peers if they are enrolled in early education.

The complexity of early childhood requires greater preparation from professionals than in the past, a fact I am pleased to see is addressed in the legislation’s requirements for quality. Young children require more than simply access to a program; they need access to highly trained teachers who administer evidenced based curricula and practices coupled with state-set early learning standards. Wheelock College is proud to offer robust and high-quality Early Childhood Education bachelor’s and master’s level degrees that prepare Wheelock graduates to meet the social, emotional, cognitive and biological development needs of their young students.

The legislation calls for early childhood teachers across the nation to undergo a similar level of preparation to what Wheelock’s Early Childhood Education program provides and sees as necessary to be effective in the classroom. The legislation requires that any school or community-based provider receiving a state sub-grant employ teachers who hold bachelor’s degrees and demonstrate competence in early childhood education. The programs must also meet state learning standards and offer professional development opportunities for staff as well as salaries comparable to K-12 teachers.

The proposal before Congress is definitely a significant step in the right direction and represents another recent public milestone for the field of early childhood education. I urge Congress to seize an opportunity to not only make gains for children now but for the entire direction of our nation by passing the Strong Start from America’s Children Act of 2013 as soon as possible.

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