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Op-Ed: In Education Olympics Politicians Promise Much but Fail at First Hurdle

As the U.S. falls behind in the quality of education, politicians are doing little to get it on track, certainly not when it comes to preschool

w steve barnett
W. Steven Barnett

As we celebrate Team USA’s success setting world records and earning medals at the 2016 summer Olympics, we cannot escape the fact America has fallen off a world-class pace in education.

The United States used to be a world leader in college graduation. As recently as 1995 we were number one, but we have made relatively little progress since then while the rest of the world has picked up its pace. By 2014, we were 19th out of 28 developed countries — clearly not a medal contender.

At the other end of the education spectrum — preschool — which is my specialty, the United States has made little to no progress in the past decade and seems to be going nowhere fast while other countries have moved far ahead. Most developed nations now offer universal preschool. Even China has committed to pre-K for every four-year-old and most -three-year-olds by 2020. At this pace, the U.S. is losing the education race, and whining about how unfair the competition is will not get our children, or our workforce, back on a world-class pace.

What seems remarkable is that our elected leaders have done so little to put American education, beginning with high quality preschool, back on track to be world class. Politicians as far apart in ideology as NYC mayor Bill De Blasio and Alabama governor Robert Bentley have worked hard to increase access to quality preschool education, yet they are the exceptions. Across the nation, even though most states claim to support preschool, actual enrollment of four-year-olds has flatlined.

In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie vetoed the mere $22 million in state funding to expand pre-K access that the Legislature had advanced this year — and the Legislature did not try to override that veto. This lack of action is particularly notable because New Jersey’s preschool program launched in the Abbott school districts decades ago has proved to be both excellent and effective. After proving to the world that quality preschool done right was a good investment, New Jersey lawmakers have lost their nerve.

Legislation has been filed. Speeches have been made. Statements have been shared. But none of that has helped three- and four-year-olds living in 560 school districts across New Jersey without universal quality preschool. Yet children can’t wait. While policymakers dither, students miss out on the rich early learning experiences that children in other countries enjoy, from vocabulary to the curiosity that underlies scientific discovery, from a sense of personal responsibility to practice using words, not fists, when angry. Research shows many of our children never will catch up or catch on; some will fall so far behind they will give up. Our children deserve a better start and a chance to compete.

Obviously, grown-ups need to work harder. And no one should be working harder at it than the president, so what has been proposed?

On the Democrats’ side, presidential nominee Hillary Clinton is a longtime advocate for early education. Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine, her running mate, is an advocate of universal pre-K for four-year-olds; he introduced federal legislation to expand and improve early education for low-income families. The Democrats advocate universal pre-K, increased tax credits and subsidies for child care, and an expanded “home visiting” program for low-income children.

Republican candidate Donald Trump has offered a tax deduction to help middle- and upper-income families recoup some costs of child care and preschool. He also has encouraged employers to offer onsite childcare. Indiana Governor Mike Pence, the Republican vice-presidential nominee, oversaw development of his state’s first state-funded, pre-k program in 2014 serving targeted counties but rejected federal grants to expand Indiana’s pilot program.

So as the presidential campaign unfolds and state and local races heat up as well, voters should press all candidates about how they plan to support early education. Let’s have a robust debate across the country and in New Jersey about whose ideas will best provide our young children with a world-class early education, building a foundation that prepares them compete for first place in education and the world economy. And then we must hold those we elect accountable for action, not just words. USA! USA!

W. Steven Barnett is director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. NIEER conducts and communicates research to support high-quality, effective early childhood education for all young children.

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