Educating early to reduce failure

02.19.2014 | San Diego Union-Tribune | William A. Kowba

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The U.S. Department of Defense estimates that 75 percent of young Americans currently do not qualify for military service. Poor academic performance, a lack of physical fitness, and unacceptable behavioral patterns are among the top cited reasons for disqualification.

Here in California, we spend a lot of time and resources fixing the consequences of academic failure. Gov. Brown has earmarked nearly $9.9 billion for state prison and court systems in this year’s state budget alone. 

We don’t dedicate enough time and resources to preventing academic failure from happening in the first place.

That’s about to change. The leader of the state Senate, Darrell Steinberg, has introduced the Kindergarten Readiness Act, a bill that would make one year of high-quality prekindergarten available to all 4-year-olds in California.

Sen. Steinberg’s plan combines the best quality standards from the state’s transitional kindergarten and preschool services. The proposal also reduces current class sizes, allows school districts to continue contracting high-quality private providers, and raises existing standards by requiring credentialed educators with additional academic units in early childhood education.

While trends in education reform come and go, research shows a solution that is consistently proven over time. High-quality and age-appropriate early learning improves student performance in later years, boosts high school graduation rates, and deters youth from future crime. By helping children develop healthy exercise and good nutrition habits, it can even help reduce childhood obesity rates.

Sacramento’s new formula for funding public schools in California provides extra resources to students who need it the most. Unfortunately, many kids are falling behind before they even start school. Research demonstrates that children who do not read proficiently by the end of third grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school on time.

Disadvantaged kids struggle disproportionately. By the age of 2, low-income children are six months behind in language development relative to their higher income peers. By age 5, low-income children are more than two years behind their higher income peers in language development.

Access is a key issue. Only one half of California’s low-income preschool-age kids currently benefit from existing state or federal preschool programs, and only one-quarter of 4-year-olds have access to transitional kindergarten.

High-quality early learning has been shown to level the playing field. One recent study of disadvantaged children in the San Francisco Bay Area found that those who received high-quality early learning for two years outperformed their higher-income peers in reading by the second grade.

It can save taxpayers money, too. An independent cost-benefit analysis by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that high-quality prekindergarten can cut crime, welfare and other societal costs and produce average net benefits to society of $15,000 for every child served.

The positive social and economic gains that can be made by helping students succeed in school, stay in shape, and avoid criminal involvement will open doors to successful careers and help secure our nation in the process. Simply put, high-quality early learning prepares children for success in school and in life.

With outcomes like these, it should come as no surprise that early learning is receiving bipartisan support throughout the country. President Obama gave preschool for all 4-year-olds his presidential seal of approval before an attentive national audience during this year’s State of the Union address. Oklahoma and Georgia, both Republican-led states, are implementing their own high-quality universal preschool opportunities. And a majority of states have implemented new or expanded existing opportunities to increase access to high-quality early learning.

We all have a dog in this fight. As the former superintendent of San Diego Unified School District, a retired U.S. Navy admiral, and member of the nonprofit organization Mission: Readiness, I’m in this battle because one in five high school graduates who try to enlist does not score high enough on the math, literacy and problem-solving tests required to enter the military.

Sen. Steinberg’s Kindergarten Readiness Act is California’s opportunity to make a tremendous difference for the next generation of Americans. It is a bill that will reduce the high cost of failure.

I hope that members of the California Legislature will lend their full support to the bill to offer high-quality prekindergarten for all 4-year-olds in the state.

One of the most important long-term investments that we can make is in the education of the American people. The time is now to prioritize investment in high-quality early education here in California and across our great nation.

Kowba, a retired U.S. Navy admiral, is former superintendent of San Diego Unified School District.

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