K was a 10th-grade student in my English class during my first year of teaching. He was a great kid: goofy smile, laid back, loved to talk about music. But school wasn’t his forte. He misplaced work frequently, was easily distracted while reading, and struggled to write more than a few simple sentences at a time. In my naïveté, I chalked K’s difficulty in school up to motivation: He simply needed to work harder. Then I saw his standardized reading scores. As a 10th-grader, K was reading at a third-grade level. Suddenly, low motivation no longer seemed like the culprit.
How could this happen, I wondered. How is it that K entered high school so far behind? The answer, I quickly learned, is that K, and countless students like him, are too often placed on the conveyor belt of our education system and pushed along, grade after grade, even when they may not be prepared to move on. Even as an early career teacher, I have seen the pattern too often: Students fail a grade, make up a year’s worth of coursework in single week credit recovery class over spring break, and then are shuffled along to the next grade, ill-equipped to succeed.
I can only speculate about the reasons for which this happens. It’s expensive and logistically difficult to hold kids back. Educators feel guilty doing it. School and district leaders like promotion and graduation data to look pretty. But the consequence of this inertia-driven policy is that our most vulnerable students are not gaining the skills they need for postsecondary success.
For this reason, I listen with a skeptical ear as this year’s field of Democratic presidential nominees pitch voters on tuition-free college for all. Certainly, the idea is well-intentioned and appealing, progressive and bold. But if Democrats want to move the needle on education at a fraction of the cost, they should instead focus on investments much earlier in life that equip kids with the tools they need to succeed in college. Specifically, Democrats should fight for three early childhood programs: paid parental leave, child care stipends, and universal preschool.
Paid Parental Leave: When my 7-month-old son was born, I took two weeks of paid paternal leave while my wife, a psychologist and postdoctoral fellow at the local Veterans Affairs hospital, did not have a single day of paid maternal leave. She used a combination of sick leave and FMLA (unpaid time off), and returned to work nine weeks postpartum. We were fortunate to have savings and family who flew into town to support us. Many other Americans, including most of my students’ families, aren’t so lucky. For these families, the birth of a child means an impossible decision that pits financial survival against the health and well-being of a newborn. Investing in paid parental leave is investing in early education, because parents are a baby’s first educators. Through touch and talk, parents and babies lay the groundwork for crucial cognitive and social development. No amount of schooling can replace this.
Child care stipends: My wife and I are incredibly lucky. Our infant is in a Spanish-immersion day care, five minutes from my school, where he is held, talked to, and sung to by loving adults. It’s a wonderful facility, but we dig deep into our savings to pay for it. We are not alone. According to a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute, here in Minnesota, the average cost of child care exceeds $16,000 annually. For a single infant, that amounts to over one-fifth of a median family’s income. For some, this means a choice between paying for child care or quitting a job. Others do not even have a choice; simple math makes the choice for them. Those who choose to enroll their children in day care often cut back on necessities like groceries, utilities, diapers, clothing, and home repairs. Providing relief in the form of stipends or tax credits would allow parents who choose to work to continue doing so while ensuring that their children are in a learning-rich environment.
Universal Pre-K: According to Close Gaps by 5, a Minnesota nonprofit that seeks to broaden access to high quality early education for children from low-income families, nearly half of the state’s children enter kindergarten already behind, kick-starting an opportunity gap that persists and widens as they progress through school. Making preschool available for every child 3 and older regardless of their family income won’t erase the opportunity gap, but it would ensure that all kids at least begin from the same starting line.
A child’s first five years do not dictate her future outcomes, but they certainly orient her initial trajectory. Would I love for kids like K to have access to free college? Absolutely. But we don’t do our young people any favors by sending them off to college unprepared. Investing in early education alleviates this problem by removing barriers from birth.
Money is finite, but so is political capital. Rather than pursue a goal like free college for all – which, while a worthy policy proposal, is also a largely partisan one – Democrats should double down on early education investments that garner broad support. Doing so would yield better educational, social, public health, and economic returns at a fraction of the cost of free college.
If lawmakers are serious about closing the so-called achievement gap, they should also get serious about preventing it from taking root in the first place. If we can give kids and families what they need in the first five years of life, there is no ceiling to what they can accomplish.
Christopher Mah is a fourth-year language arts teacher in Minneapolis.
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