EQUALITY OF OPPORTUNITY FOR CHILDREN – WHAT DOES IT ENTAIL?
“No great improvements in the lot of mankind are possible, until a great change takes place in the fundamental constitution of their modes of thought.”
John Stuart Mill
It was in reading this famous observation that, I came to realize that we do not have a cohesive, fit-for-the-times framework to address two critical questions:
What does “equal opportunity” for children entail?
What portion of that should be underwritten and provided by the state and what part left to private or individual means?
I have chosen to address these two questions within the historic commitment our nation made in the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness – that to secure these Rights, governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the government.”
What exactly do these “unalienable Rights of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” entail? And when we say that it is to “secure these Rights that governments are instituted among Men,” what exactly is the government’s obligation? To do what, for whom?
These are profound questions which have been debated, legislated, adjudicated and written about since the very founding of our nation. These questions have been answered differently at different points in history. Most glaringly, the Right to Liberty was denied for almost a century to enslaved men and women following the Declaration of Independence. The Right to vote was denied for many women until 1920.
It is not my intent to address the history of the on-going debate over individual Rights.
I will try, however, to address a narrower but, especially today, vital aspect of this question of what are the “unalienable Rights” that should be “secured” by the government.
Specifically, I will address this question: What do we mean when we commit to provide “equality of opportunity” for children as they grow up; what Rights does that entail and what portion of securing those Rights should be underwritten and provided by the government?
At the outset, we must acknowledge an overarching reality: More than any other factor, a child’s development depends more on how his or her parents foster their child’s development, including what is enabled by their economic circumstances and educational background. Obviously, these conditions cannot in any meaningful sense be made equal and it would be (and has proven to be) folly to try. It is in the context of this reality that we must strive to answer the question of what we can and must do to provide children with the opportunity so that--as we say in the Declaration of Independence--they are able to “pursue their unalienable Rights of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
I submit that the Rights to which children are entitled include an environment that is safe, good health and a good education. These, I believe, are basic Rights which must be secured by the government.
In this paper, I will focus exclusively on education—specifically early childhood education.
My major contention: Quality Pre-Kindergarten Education is A “Right” For All Children.
I believe that we have now reached a sufficient level of knowledge and evidence to conclude that making quality pre-K education available for all children, regardless of their family’s economic means, is a basic Right in the same way that providing quality K-12 education for all children is acknowledged as a “Right” in our Nation. As such, quality pre-K education calls for public funding just as K-12 education does. We have learned that quality pre-K is an essential, even more important, part of the education continuum. We should no more fail to fund it than fail to fund Kindergarten or the 1st or 2nd grades.
To repeat, I believe the evidence now available clearly indicates that providing a quality pre-Kindergarten experience should be taken as an obligation of the state just as is providing K-12 education. While funding streams will be shared by the federal, state and local governments, the overwhelming majority of the funding will properly come from the state and local levels, just as it is with K-12 education.
There are four reasons why I contend that public funding for high quality pre-K must not be seen as a “nice to do” benefit—a benefit to be implemented when we can afford it. Rather, it must be seen as a fundamental Right, just like K-12 education. Here is why:
1. It is morally correct: it is a fundamental necessity if all children are to have as approximate an equal opportunity to develop as can be provided recognizing the overarching role of the family.
2. It is socially correct: there is no other way that our nation’s young adult men and women, as a whole, will be able to prosper in the competitive world of the future.
3. It is financially correct: evidence shows that the investment required to provide this development and educational experience will pay for itself many-fold in lower costs (i.e., less remediation, fewer repeat grades, lower criminal activity and incarceration) and from higher incomes and the taxes derived therefrom. As an intervention, it has been proven that quality pre-K provides a far higher return on investment than any other intervention in the education continuum.
4. It is the only credible response to competitive pressure from the many other countries which are already providing quality pre-K education to a far higher percentage of their three and four-year-olds than our Nation is today.
I recognize that calling for public funding support for pre-Kindergarten education for all children as a Right in the same way we do for K-12 education is a bold contention. It demands a very high level of support. Here is that support.
There is compelling evidence that quality pre-K education has a significant impact on a child’s development which lasts throughout his or her years of education and life. We have evidence for this today that we did not have 10 years ago. In brief, here is what we know.
1. Quality pre-K and Kindergarten education dramatically improves Kindergarten readiness as measured on well-qualified tests among students of all incomes.
By Income and Duration of Preschool Experience
No Center- Center Based Center Based
Based Program Program-1 Yr. or less Program-1+Yr.
Low Income** 15.8 18.5 19.6
Other Income 19.8 22.4 23.7
As you’ll see, on average a center-based program of more than one year lifts
children from low-income families to “ready for Kindergarten” levels.
2. In turn, being ready for Kindergarten dramatically impacts third grade reading proficiency. Specifically, research conducted in Southwestern Ohio shows that 85% of those children testing ready for Kindergarten were reading on-grade by the end of the third grade whereas only 43% of those children not ready for Kindergarten were reading on-grade.
3. This doubling of the percentage of children reading proficiently is enormously significant because third grade reading proficiency correlates dramatically with graduation rates. A child not reading proficiently at the end of the third grade is four times more likely to drop out than one who is. And if they are from a poor family, they are 11 times more likely to drop out before completing high school.
*This measure is used to assess Kindergarten readiness as children enter Kindergarten in the State of Ohio. A score of 19 or better is considered “ready for kindergarten.”
**Low income in this study is defined as 185% of the Federal Poverty line and below or qualifying for free and reduced lunch.
4. Finally, high school graduation*** and educational attainment beyond high school have an enormous impact on earnings, employment and a person’s health and success throughout life. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows the following as of 2013:
Median Weekly Earnings and Unemployment Rates
Ages 25+ by Educational Attainment
Earnings Unemployment Rate (%)
Less than H.S. diploma $ 472 11.0
H.S. Diploma $ 651 7.5
Associate Degree $ 777 5.4
Bachelor’s Degree $1,108 4.0
Master’s Degree $1,329 3.4
What we have learned is very simple and very important. Quality pre-K education for a child influences all that follows—cognitively, socially and emotionally. It significantly increases the likelihood of high school completion and, beyond that, entry into higher education with the better paying jobs which such education offers.
I want to especially emphasize how important starting early is for children born into families with lower income. Consider this sobering fact: For children born around 1980, college completion among students in the lowest income quartile was only 9%. That compares to 54% college completion for children in the upper income quartile. We can’t change all the factors impacting children who come from different household income levels. But one think we can change is ensuring that all children, regardless of the income of their parents, receive a quality start.****
It also goes without saying that the influence of educational attainment extends beyond earnings and employment. It impacts family formation, health and the likelihood of being involved in criminal activity. In the latter regard, it is a shocking fact that 70% of incarcerated men and women are high school dropouts.
***The high school overall dropout rate is estimated at 20%. By race and ethnicity: White students - 14%; Black students - 31%; Hispanic students - 26%; Asian students - 12%. (National Center for Education Statistics)
****”The Diploma Gap Between Rich and Poor,” Peter R. Orzag, BloombergView, March 5, 2013.
Given the above facts, it is not surprising that studies following students over several decades who received quality pre-Kindergarten education show significant cost-effective benefits. They stem from a combination of 1) higher incomes attributable to higher education and 2) lower costs attributable to less special education, fewer repeated grades and lower costs in the criminal justice system.*****
Now, if everyone could afford quality pre-K on their own or if adequate funds could be provided through philanthropy, there might be no need for public support. That is not the case. At a cost of $8,000-10,000 per year, quality pre-K represents about 20% of the median average income of about $43,000, and for a person making $12 per hour, it represents over 30% of his or her salary. Plainly unaffordable.
Philanthropy does help. In the Cincinnati community, for example, the United Way funds pre-K and in-home visiting programs. Still, combining philanthropy and existing government support, we are providing less than 30% of our population with quality pre-K experience.******
This gets down to the basic issues of fairness and financial common sense. I see no reason why a Nation committed to equal opportunity should have children and grandchildren born into families like my own, receive the benefit of a quality pre-K experience—an experience which we now know significantly impacts their entire lives—while children born into poorer families are denied that benefit. This is especially true because we now know that quality pre-K programs provide a very attractive return on investment. Put bluntly, I call them a “financial no-brainer.”
*****See “Dollars and Sense: A Review of Economic Analysis of Pre-K,” May 2007, particularly the reviews of the High/Scope Perry Pre-School Program; Chicago Child-Parent Centers and the Carolina Abecedarian Project.
******CEECO policy report—May 2014. See Appendix A for the impact of poverty on enrollment and quality pre-K.
A few asides:
· In providing quality pre-Kindergarten education, there are questions that need to be answered. For example:
a. To what extent should public support be means-tested, providing lower support to families with higher incomes? I believe that means testing should be a fundamental component of any system.
b. Should public support cover both three and four-year-olds? I believe the answer is yes. There is substantial evidence that two years of pre-school is close to two times as effective as one year.
· Pre-K education should be voluntary.
· While Pre-K education is essential, it is not a silver bullet. Particularly for poor families, wraparound services providing health care for the child and his or her parents, as well as job placement and additional education where appropriate, are critical.
In the end, what I am calling for is nothing more or less than providing equal opportunity—a fair chance, if you will--to children, as best we can, recognizing the overriding influence of a child’s family. In this regard, I hearken back to the words of President John F. Kennedy as he challenged the Nation to support legislation that eventually emerged as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Shortly before his assassination in fall 1963, he addressed the discrimination inflicted on African-American children.
“This is one country. It has become one country because all of us and all the people who came here had an equal chance to develop their talents. We cannot say to 10% of the population that you can’t have that Right; your children cannot have the chance to develop whatever talents they have...as I have said before, not every child has an equal talent or an equal ability or equal motivation, but they should have the equal Right to develop their talent and their ability.”
Fifty years ago, President Kennedy challenged the nation to give children the equal Right to develop their talents regardless of their race. Today we are challenging ourselves to give children that Right regardless of their family’s income.
I hope and pray that will happen soon. In truth, I believe it will. The evidence is too strong, the cause too right to be denied. The public understands this. Recent polls show that 70% of American voters favor a plan to use public funds to make pre-school available to all children in our Nation. Now, we must muster the political will to make it happen. We must act quickly so that future generations of young people have the opportunity which they deserve and our Nation desperately needs.
As Krista Ramsey of the Cincinnati Enquirer poignantly writes:
“There really is a sense of urgency–of a clock ticking–for us to get this right because the developmental windows narrow if not close. We keep acting like we can push a “Pause” button with young children’s learning–as if, if we get this thing wrong, we can just put them into a learning environment whenever we like, and all will be well. I think people would be appalled if we stopped a young child from walking–just held him back!–or from talking, or learning to feed himself, etc. It would border on abuse.
There is another extraordinarily important point Krista makes:
“Inequality in early childhood opportunities sets people up for a lifetime of inequality: lower test scores, fewer educational options, lower confidence, fewer career options, lower earnings. Why on earth would we pour so many resources into trying to close “achievement gaps” at 14 and “earning gaps” at 25, when we ignored the inequality at the educational/cognitive starting gate? How financially foolish.”
How financially foolish, indeed. And how morally wrong. So let’s get on with it—NOW!