- Published: June 02, 2009
Original Source | The Oregonian
By Susan Nielsen, Thursday March 19, 2009
Thursday's column: If you're rich or lucky, it's a wonderful head start
You can find an excellent preschool in Oregon for your child, given an infinite amount of time and money, plus reliable transportation and job flexibility. Angling for slots while Junior is in utero helps, too.
Short of those advantages, you may be out of luck. This is why I worry about Oregon's low-income kids on long waiting lists for state-funded pre-kindergarten at a time of pending budget cuts. Many of these kids do time in substandard care while their parents scramble to make ends meet.
These are the kids who enter kindergarten at the bottom of their class.
Then they spend the rest of their lives trying to catch up.
The state of Oregon makes a limited investment in early education for low-income children. This investment reflects a growing understanding of the brain development and social learning that take place before the age of 5.
We're not just talking about memorizing letters and colors here. We're talking about children's ability to understand language, regulate their emotions and be truly "ready to learn."
Kids who start kindergarten flat-footed face a tremendous and sometimes permanent disadvantage. Not always, of course. Children can defy the odds if they get enough love and direction from somewhere. But it isn't easy.
"Part of the story of the achievement gap," says Dr. Ross Thompson, visiting Oregon this week as a member of the National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, "is that it's already present by age 5."
Child advocates in Oregon want the state to invest more in early childhood education, namely Head Start. They recognize a massive expansion isn't realistic, so they're lobbying for modest growth. (To their credit, they'll quietly admit any increase is a tough sell in this economy.)
Yet they're holding firm on one point: Oregon shouldn't backtrack on high-quality preschool for low-income kids because of a short-term budget crisis.
"These are programs that can change the trajectory of a child's life," says business leader Dick Alexander, chairman of the Ready for School coalition.
Alexander became a true believer while studying social pathology as former chairman of the Portland-based Citizens Crime Commission. Early intervention, he says, pays big dividends for Oregon down the road in terms of fewer dropouts, fewer prisoners and a more self-sufficient citizenry.
"What we're really talking about," Alexander says, "is the adults these children become."
Keep in mind, Oregon lawmakers have a terrible job this session. They face a hole of at least $2 billion in a $16 billion budget. They will please no one -- including child advocates -- as they struggle to find the right balance of cuts and taxes.
In this context, lawmakers have three obligations. The first is to help get the economy out of freefall and inspire businesses to hire again, so that fewer people need government help. The second is to avoid harm to children, elderly people and the disabled, who are least able to fend for themselves.
The third is to think long-term. That means, for example, persuading Oregon voters to tweak the kicker law to allow the state to build a bigger rainy-day fund. It also means protecting, whenever possible, those small investment in kids designed to prevent big taxpayer costs down the road.
High-quality preschool is one obvious place to start. Wealthy and middle-class parents bend over backward for it, because they can see the benefits for their blossoming children. Lower-income parents, meanwhile, get on waiting lists and hope their number comes up.
The status quo works well for those with money or luck.
Ideally you wouldn't need either at age 4.