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A presidential gift: State of the Union call for investment in early childhood education

As an early childhood advocate, I was encouraged to hear President Obama highlight the importance of early learning as a policy priority in his State of the Union Address.

Early childhood education, while widely recognized as important for healthy kids, families and communities, has never attracted the political support needed to ensure true "universal access" for all families.

The President's commitment to expand access to high-quality early education is significant, and he should be commended for making this issue a visible priority.

"Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road. But today, fewer than 3 in 10 four year-olds are enrolled in a high-quality preschool program. Most middle-class parents can't afford a few hundred bucks a week for a private preschool. And for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives. So tonight, I propose working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every single child in America. That's something we should be able to do."

President Barack Obama

A child at Growing Places in Lee listens to a story.President Obama's proposal reflects an understanding that the benefits of early education extend far beyond that child and that family. They include decreased high school dropout rates, fewer children in need of special education, and reduced crime, delinquency and teen pregnancy, to name just a few.

In dollar terms, studies have estimated that $1 invested in hiqh-quality early education provides $7 of public benefit. Wouldn't we all love that kind of return on our investments? The President is no doubt referring to the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman of the University of Chicago (not known as a liberal think tank), among others. Mr. Heckman has made a solid economic case for investing in high-quality early childhood programs.

The Administration's plan calls for far-reaching investments in pre-kindergarten, Head Start, Early Head Start and child care, with goals of both improving quality and expanding access. We know this works, but how such programs are created and operate is important. Parents and providers should have a say in how these services take shape in their communities.

What would this plan mean for New Hampshire? Our state government doesn't fund a comprehensive pre-kindergarten program, as do some of the states referenced by the President. Federal and state child care funding, which has never been great, has been cut in recent years. In New Hampshire, working parents with limited incomes have been periodically put on a waiting list for child care scholarships, which forces them to juggle their children among relatives and sometimes unsafe or unstable care arrangements.

Many N.H. families would benefit if the state embraced a federal-state partnership to provide access to early childhood services and programs with adequate funding. With a cautious eye on the details, we could use this opportunity to design a program that works for N.H.'s families.

Any plan to add early childhood education services in N.H. should take advantage of and strengthen the network of public and private programs that already provide essential early childhood and child care for working families.

Thank you, Mr. President, for stepping up for children by giving voice to the critical importance of the early years. This is an investment strategy in our future work force that makes sense. I will encourage my Congressional Representatives to support this plan, and encourage others to do so as well.

Julie McConnell is Director of the Community Loan Fund's Child Care and Community Facilities Lending programs.

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