Early education and quality childcare

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(Host) Commentator Madeleine Kunin urges more support for early childhood education.

(Kunin) Ask the question, “Do you want to improve public education?” and you are sure to hear a chorus of Yeas. Ask the follow up question, “How would you improve public education?” and you would receive as many answers as there are apples for the teachers.

My answer would be simple: invest in quality childcare and early childhood education. Increasingly, advocates for children are arriving at a consensus that investment in early education, brings returns, such as lower drop out rates and higher literacy.

It was 18 years ago, during my first term as governor, that Vermont made kindergarten available to every child. And it was many years ago that Head Start was conceived to fight the war on poverty. Both initiatives have created more equity in education, giving many children, regardless of income, the ability to receive care and education at an early age.

Today, that’s not good enough. We have to educate children earlier and we have to provide better teachers for them. First, we have to improve the quality of Head Start and other early e education programs. Second, we must change k through 12, to four through 12 on a voluntary basis.

How do we improve quality? Treat childcare staff and early education providers like teachers. Today they are paid the minimum wage or slightly more, earning on average $14,000 to $18,000 a year. Few have an education beyond high school.

An interesting example of a successful early education program is found in France, where there are schools called Ecoles Maternels throughout the country. All teachers have a master degree and children start at four years of age. In poor neighborhoods, populated largely by immigrants, teachers are paid more, children can start at the age of three and the schools receive additional resources.

That is the opposite of what is proposed in the No Child Left Behind program. Schools which have poor test scores are usually also poor in income. These schools would lose both students and funding. Today, these schools already receive $2,000 less than do schools which have fewer children in poverty.

Momentum for early education is mounting. Some five states, headed by Georgia, have made access to early childhood education their goal. Laura Bush in interested in the idea. Those who can afford it, know this is true and vie to send their children to the best pre-schools. Early education should not be the province of the few, but of the many. The early years are the most important years. It is time to match our rhetoric with our actions and invest in quality early education.

Madeleine Kunin is a former governor of Vermont.

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