Newsroom image of kids

Child Watch® Column: "The Closest Thing We Have to a Panacea"

Release Date: October 4, 2013

Marian Wright Edelman

In 2009, the city adopted universal pre-kindergarten . . . and frankly, it is some of the best money that we could ever spend. Those who have to deal with truancy every day know exactly what I mean. Those who see children who wind up in special education because of failed educational opportunities, because of the social and economic conditions in which they live, know exactly what I mean. Those professionals who have to oversee the juvenile justice system know exactly what I mean. It pays for itself over time.

           --Mayor Vincent C. Gray, Washington, D.C.

This week there is some good news from Washington, D.C. in the midst of all the dismal Congressional news on the shutdown. Like many American cities, the nation’s capital faces deep challenges, including some neighborhoods where poverty, violence, and unemployment rates are rampant. These major challenges plus the necessity of educating all the city’s children for the future made the District of Columbia ready for major changes. Over the last several years they’ve made a series of decisions that have made the city a model of best practices for its youngest children. When Mayor Vincent Gray spoke on early childhood education at a recent Children’s Defense Fund/Duke University Child and Family Policy Center convening, he shared some of the approaches our nation’s capital city is getting exactly right when it comes to preparing the next generation of workers and leaders for the future. 

Mayor Gray explained that because he had a background in clinical psychology and entered politics after serving as the city’s Director of Human Services he understood that investments in early childhood pay for themselves many times over in better outcomes throughout a child’s entire life. He knew the city couldn’t afford to waste more childhoods: “Ninety percent of brain development has already occurred by the time a child is five years of age, yet many children don’t start school before five years of age, which seemed like an incredibly lost opportunity to me.” The Mayor helped lead the push for universal pre-kindergarten, and since it was adopted four years ago the city has chosen to fund pre-K using the same formula as every other grade to ensure its availability. As a result, over 90 percent of D.C.’s four-year-olds are now in school in a full-day program as are over 70 percent of three-year-olds. Children in the city’s pre-K programs are all being taught by teachers with the same qualification standards as teachers at every other grade level in the system. There is also a strong team in place in the D.C. Public Schools making this work.

That tremendous achievement is only part of D.C.’s early childhood education success story. The city’s Early Success Framework focuses on children starting at birth through third grade, and Mayor Gray explained that for the last year and a half the city has been examining the existing resources and agencies that already serve these children and their families to decide how efforts can be better coordinated and organized for maximum impact. The city uses a three-pronged system: traditional public schools; public charter schools, which now serve 43 percent of D.C.’s students; and licensed home and community-based providers, which help serve the very youngest children beginning in infancy. Public schools are also co-locating with community agencies that operate infant and toddler child development centers. As high schools are modernized throughout D.C., all of them are opening with state of the art infant and toddler classrooms. As the Mayor explained, that’s just one more way the city is able to provide developmental programming for its children at the earliest stages and also engage parents right from the very beginning. 

Since children do not come in pieces, I was pleased to hear that schools are being connected to the city’s health care system, and at the same time the health care system is emphasizing the successful developmental interventions that can be made with young children. The city also is making new investments in infants and toddlers and has begun talking with the Clinton Global Initiative about strategies to decrease infant mortality. The Mayor summed it up saying, “the Early Success Framework is really a frame for us to be able to put together a panoply of programs on behalf of children.” 

And it’s working. “We are already seeing it in terms of third grade test scores on the part of kids. We are already starting to see it in terms of kids’ reading capacity. We’re starting to see it in terms of the expansion of very young children’s vocabulary. . . . I think it’s because we have started our kids out at an early point.”

Mayor Gray said most D.C. residents supported these new investments in children because they knew something different needed to be done and understood this was a prudent use of city resources: “Being able to move systems in that way is a very difficult and painstaking progress, but it will never happen until you conceive of it, and then you start to try to make it happen . . . I know there is no panacea to any of this, but frankly, it is the closest thing we have to a panacea, and it amazes me that jurisdiction after jurisdiction does not invest in early childhood education—or hard times hit [and] it’s one of the first things in which jurisdictions disinvest. That is a huge, huge mistake.”

Imagine what could happen in America if many of the dysfunctional self-serving members of Congress had the common sense to focus on what is truly important: investing in rather than undermining America’s children and future with cheap fleeting political posturing.  Communities and governments all across the country can learn from the strides Washington, D.C. is making for its young children. And I hope they will.

Marian Wright Edelman is President of the Children's Defense Fund whose Leave No Child Behind® mission is to ensure every child a Healthy Start, a Head Start, a Fair Start, a Safe Start and a Moral Start in life and successful passage to adulthood with the help of caring families and communities. For more information go to

Mrs. Edelman's Child Watch Column also appears each week on The Huffington Post.

Sign-up to receive CDF President Marian Wright Edelman's weekly Child Watch Column.

Let us know what you think about this column:

Enter this word: Change

Here's what others have said:

Submitted by Tanya at: October 7, 2013
One problem with your goals is the obstructionism of the prison industry. Successful children, especially children of color, won't feed the prison system that is fast becoming totally privatized. Profit for that industry is paired with the abusively underpaid prison labor used by corporate America. This is part of the plan for the reduction in real wages for the public. Most people are unaware of the relationship between private prisons and corporate production. The link between these factors must be included in any efforts to fund public education in order to benefit our young people.

Submitted by Paul Dworkin, MD at: October 6, 2013
Mrs. Edelman's commentary is so helpful in setting the context for our ongoing collaboration with D.C. public officials to bring Help Me Grow to the District. With its focus on the early detection of vulnerable, at-risk children and the linkage of these children and their families to community-based programs and services, HMG ( embraces the priorities of the Early Success Framework and of Mayor Gray, and is informed by the same advances in our knowledge of early brain development and early child development that inspire the Framework. Our thanks to Mrs. Edelman for encouraging our collaboration and so effectively articulating the rationale for our excitement and optimism.

Submitted by Roberta at: October 6, 2013
It's a very good lets me know there are still persons interested in the welfare of American kids....I hear a lot about kids in foreign countries abysmal plights but if the U S A is on par with Romania surrounding child poverty levels etc. then we need child Advocates for our country too.

Submitted by bev at: October 6, 2013
Republican only care about rich kids, their own. It shows how short sighted they are. If only, they could be impeached.

Submitted by Nanacuellar at: October 5, 2013
As an advocate of young children, this column is a must have! This is how I stay on top of policies that effect children. It let's me know when I need to contact my senator or congressman. Then I contact advocates on the local level so they can follow suit and make a bigger impact. This way I have more people "Standing for children!"

Submitted by madc at: October 5, 2013
I always am inspired by what you write and it ignites the passion in me to keep advocating for children and in the long term, our nation. The comments involving infant and toddler care make me want to cheer! Step by step we will help all understand that learning begins with prenatal care and so does the achievement gap. It is here we begin to give every child a fair start but only if every mother and child has an equal and healthy beginning.

Submitted by Docs For Tots at: October 5, 2013
Docs For Tots agrees! We believe prescribing Quality Pre-K for all of our children would be the most effective way to lay the foundation for lifelong health and success!

Submitted by JENNIE at: October 4, 2013
I think this article is awesome! I live in a state where the DHS or educators recognize the value of a preschool education. This makes my heart flutter with hope for the children of Mississippi.

Submitted by JMC39 at: October 4, 2013
Early education is good policy - that's indisputable. DC's implementation of universal pre-K is laudable. Yet, the evidence of effective implementation in DC remains to be verified. We must ask, has anyone tracked the 2009 pre-K student cohort and compared their educational achievement to those students not enrolled in pre-K? Pre-K is a "good" thing; highly quality implementation and rigorous evaluation can make pre-K in DC a "great" thing.

Submitted by Ethel Seiderman at: October 4, 2013
Dear Marion - Mazel Tov to the strong commitment and action taken by the last two DC Mayors. Oh how I adore all our children and DC is proving ALL will thrive and I will stand with you ( or sit - at 82 I do occasionally need to sit)and our nation/worlds children because they are my legacy and I insist that it be one of honor - our children will lead. Ethel xo

Submitted by texjohn at: October 4, 2013
Very heartening to read of the programs and interventions being undertaken in D.C.,and I hope eventually these programs can spread across the country. My home state, sadly, has one of the worst records of disinvesting in education, but this can be reversed hopefully.

Submitted by Annie at: October 4, 2013
Bravo DC!! This is the best possible way to spend funding and have the greatest impact on the rising generations...