To understand why my proposed budget expands access to preschool to 4,000 more Kentucky 4-year-olds, it helps to imagine two kindergarten classes arriving for the first day of school.
In one class, the kids are bright-eyed and healthy. They know the alphabet, their numbers, and a little rudimentary math (think basic addition and subtraction). They can even read a little bit, and are able hold a conversation with adults. In short, they’re confident, curious, creative and energetic. They want to learn.
In the other class, the kids are just the opposite. Several have health problems, like toothaches, asthma and lingering sickness caused by poor nutrition. They’ve never been read to, don’t know either their letters or numbers and can’t spell their names. They’re too timid to interact with their teachers and classmates, show little interest in anything around them and – to summarize – are completely unengaged.
You don’t have to be a kindergarten teacher to predict the outcome of the year: One class will learn, the other will struggle.
When the students enter first grade the following year, the same gap will exist, only it’ll be larger. In later grades, the gap will be larger still.
Barring aggressive intervention, the kids who began their school careers behind are likely to remain behind the rest of their lives.
That’s why getting our youngest children off to a good start – by laying a foundation of good health and cognitive development that enables them to hit the ground running in kindergarten – has been one of my top priorities as governor.
The seeds of learning are planted early in life. Earlier, even, than kindergarten. Scientists say that some 90 percent of physical brain development occurs from birth to age 3.
That’s why we’ve brought health care coverage to nearly 60,000 children whose families didn’t have any.
We’ve improved dental care for tens of thousands of children by increasing the number of dentists who treat children and bringing treatment straight to our classrooms.
We’re aligning our preschool and early care programs around a common definition of kindergarten readiness, one that guides our care workers in preparing our children mentally, physically, emotionally and socially to do the work involved in kindergarten.
And we’re seeking to expand access to preschool to 4,430 of our at-risk 4-year-olds.
My proposed budget for the 2013-2014 biennium – which I presented to the General Assembly on Jan. 17 – includes $15 million to expand eligibility to families whose incomes are 160 percent or less of the federal poverty level, up from the current cut-off of 150 percent.
By the end of my term, I intend to set eligibility levels at 200 percent or below, which would help us add 3,920 additional children on top of this year’s gain.
Anecdotally, this makes sense.
Statistically, it’s a wise investment.
The Committee for Economic Development – a national nonprofit, nonpartisan business-led public policy organization – produced a report funded by the Pew Charitable Trust that studied the benefits of early childhood education. The report found that kids who had access to high-quality preschool were less likely to drop out of school, less likely to commit crimes, earned higher incomes and were healthier.
Consequently, experts say that every dollar spent on preschool programs carries a return on investment that ranges from $2 to $17.
The formula is simple – we can invest in our children early, or we can pay substantially higher costs later for things like remedial school work, basic job training, expanded welfare and prison costs.
If we don’t give kids the best possible start to their education, the bill comes due again, again and again.
Our people – especially our children – are Kentucky’s greatest resource.
To bring transformational change to our state, we must cultivate that resource by making substantial investments in our intellectual infrastructure.
Even in the most wretched financial times, there are certain investments that we cannot ignore.
But this is more than a financial argument. It’s also a moral one.
We owe all of our children – whether they live in our inner cities or our mountain hollows, our suburbs or our farms – a chance at a promising and productive life.
And that process starts early.