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Child Watch® Column: "Getting Children Ready For School"

Release Date: August 12, 2011

Marian Wright Edelman

From new backpacks to sharp pencils, parents across the country are doing their best to cross the items off their children's back-to-school checklists. They want to be sure that when the first day of school comes, their children will have everything they need to be ready to start and ready to learn. But as a country we're failing to do the same thing and in the current budget debate, some of our leaders are threatening to do just the opposite. Instead of budgeting our limited resources wisely so we'll be able to stock up on the things we know our children need, some shrill, ideologically driven leaders are hijacking the political process and trying to grab money out of our children's small piggybanks and spend it on more gift cards for big corporations and billionaires. No new tax pledges have been signed by 277 members of Congress throwing the entire weight of debt reduction on children, our poorest Americans, the homeless, jobless, helpless, and a middle class treading water and trying to stay afloat.

We know that between birth and age five, children learn social, emotional, behavioral, and cognitive skills that set the foundation for academic success. Factors including poverty and the "lottery of geography" create barriers to young children's healthy development. Cognitive gaps emerge between children from families with low and higher incomes as early as nine months, and more often than not, these children are unable to catch up by the time they enter kindergarten. The resulting achievement gap increases over time and often propels children into the cradle to prison pipeline – especially if they are poor children of color.

Quality child care and early childhood educational experiences are crucial to giving children a sound start in life – but they are still out of reach for many families. Although child care is a necessity for many families with working parents, the annual cost of center-based child care for a four-year-old is more than the annual in-state tuition at a public four-year college in 33 states and the District of Columbia. In 18 states, a family must have an income below 175 percent of the poverty level (below $32,043 for a family of four) to receive a public child care subsidy. Only 13.8 percent of three-year-olds and 38.9 percent of four-year-olds were in state-funded pre-kindergarten programs, Head Start, or early intervention/special education in 2008-2009 and only 10 states require all schools districts to offer full day kindergarten to get children ready for school.

Without positive early childhood experiences, it is easy for children to fall behind in school and American education, which used to be the envy of the world, is in dire straits. Many public school students, kindergarten through 12th grade, are struggling; children of color and poor children struggle most. More than 60 percent of all fourth, eighth, and 12th grade public school students and nearly 80 percent or more of Black and Hispanic public school students in the same grades are reading or doing math below grade level. The U.S. ranks 24th among 30 developed countries on overall educational achievement for 15-year-olds, and in a study of education systems in 60 countries, we ranked 31st in math achievement and 23rd in science achievement for 15-year-olds. Too often children fall behind in school and drop out, increasing their risk of entering the cradle to prison pipeline. Staying in school and receiving a quality education are the best deterrents to juvenile delinquency and the surest route towards responsible, productive adulthood. Yet almost half of our states spend on average more than three times as much per prisoner as per public school pupil. I can't think of a dumber investment policy, one that hurts countless children and families every day.

It's clear we're not getting our children what they need to be ready for and to succeed in school and to learn all that we need them to know in order to keep our workforce, military, and country strong in the future. It's time for every voter to tell those shrill partisan and ideologically driven extremists that America's children are not to be sacrificial lambs on the altar of their destructive agendas. If we saw parents spending money to buy themselves a private jet but sending their child to school unprepared, hungry, and empty-handed, we would be shocked and furious at how misguided their priorities were. Why should any of our nation's leaders be allowed to make the same choice?


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Here's what others have said:

Submitted by Kim at: March 13, 2012
I hope all families had enough money to give to their families for school and food.

Submitted by reka at: August 19, 2011
The government is failing all of us, regardless of race and income. I was raised in the Tennessee Foster Care system, and have yet to see my way out of poverty. I know God has a better plan for me and my family. The question is.. Will the federal government have a better plan for our nation, regarding education, employment,diversity,and poverty. Will we rise above the situation and allow our nation to heal. Or will greed and misguided hatred cause us to fail?

Submitted by Leslie at: August 15, 2011
I read to children in Stamford Head Start classes for 17 years. I really enjoyed the children, as well as enabling the teachers to have more individual time with students. Being read to is so important! Sometimes both Parents and Children still recognize Miss Leslie, and say Hi. De funding Reading is Fundamental, Head Start or other Child Care is very wrong.

Submitted by Charlotte at: August 12, 2011
Great column! Americans can no longer afford inadequate preparation for school among children ages 0-5 years, and can no longer afford to push social and emotional learning off the curriculum at any grade level. Just as multiculturalism has been integrated into curriculum, so too social and emotional learning can be integrated into the curriculum, can be taught and tested. In addition, schools need feedback from courts regarding how many of their students from which graduating class have had divorce, child abuse, spouse abuse, traffic violations, and other law breaking. School districts could use this information as an indicator of how well they have prepared their students for a law abiding life. In addition, High schools ought to themselves keep track every few years or so of their graduate's overall health and employment so they know how successful they have been at preparing their students for the tasks of loving themselves, loving their spouse, loving their children and having gainful employment. We need federal funding for early education, and we need federal legislation to require improvement in all education, particularly in the areas of social and emotional learning and wellness. We can't afford to be such a sick nation, and the solution to that is more education and practice in how to stay healthy, physically, emotionally, spiritually and socially. I support encouraging the open discussion of personal faith in schools, allowing students to write about, talk about and practice their individual faiths, because our founding fathers called for the separation of church and state, but NOT the separation of God and people!

Submitted by Jas at: August 12, 2011
I have been involved with education at several different levels and agree with some of your points, but in my opinion you are comparing apples and oranges. I began life being the son of a poor dirt farmer. Both of my parents stressed education was the key to better myself. I took advantage of the gifts God gave me, the ability to work hard, study and presevere even with Learning Disibilities and very poor vision. I feel I am successful, although not rich by many standards. In this great Land of America, individuals have to seize whatever opportunity (legal)is available and make the best of it. Unfortunately, many believe opportunities/wealth/education/benefits are to be given and not earned. You sound like one of those who blame others because everyone isn't given their "fair" share. I respectfully disagree with much of your rant. I see parents spending their money on tobacco, alcohol and other products instead of those new backpacks, pencils and food which is as bad, if not worse, than the ideologically driven extremists you blame. Thank you for listening to my rant.

Submitted by Beth at: August 12, 2011
What would any humane person think after reading this column...that the words "children" and "education" have fallen out of the vocabulary of many in Washington and state governments. As an educator who is "old and crabby" these days, I find it reprehensible that all we can do at the federal level is come up with more "untested" standards. When we talk about, what I call the "private jet syndrome," let's include the wealthy people like Bill Gates who continues to put his money into private education. I just don't understand the logic in his doing this when our public schools need the money for...yes, preschool for all would be a priority. In Illinois, every year we have to wait to hear if we are getting the money. Our district will not, at this time, commit to paying for the program themselves. I have been reading Dr. Wright Edelman's reports, newsletters, and blogs for a long time and I honor the work that all of you do for these children.