Opinion

The pre-K imperative

A pre-kindergarten class at Primary Colors in Durham on Friday, May 20, 2016.
A pre-kindergarten class at Primary Colors in Durham on Friday, May 20, 2016. Justin Cook

The messages from the Early Education/Preschool Task Force draft report released this week are clear.

To perhaps oversimplify, they are these: High-quality, pre-kindergarten programs can increase success as children enter public schools, in their kindergarten year and beyond. Children in low-income households are most in need of this help, and right now, many of them are least likely to get it with our present capacity. This community has the wherewithal to provide pre-K programs for the most vulnerable and, eventually, to all 4-year-olds. But getting there will be a heavy lift.

It is, make no mistake, a lift we badly need to make if we are going to give all of our children the greatest chance of success, a move that will help ensure that our county’s economy sustains its recent upward trajectory and that we become an even more attractive community where people want to live and to work.

“There is ample evidence to support the importance of pre-K for young children’s cognitive, language and socio-emotional development,” the report’s authors note. It’s true that for many of us, as we were growing up, little thought was given to the importance of education in those early years, but decades of growing research on early brain development have made clear that, as Durham’s Partnership for Children puts it succinctly on its website: “There are only 2,000 days between the time a baby is born and when that child enters kindergarten. Early investment creates a lifetime of results.”

The task force report expands on the rationale for extending pre-kindergarten programs to all children: “A wealth of evidence-based programs...document the consistent link between high-quality childcare and improve cognitive, academic, and social skills for children, with gains maintained into adulthood, and having the greatest impact on children in low-income families.”

Expanding these opportunities, the task force acknowledges, won’t be cheap. It recommends as a first phase extending by August 2019 high-quality pre-K programs initially to the roughly 1,100 children in Durham County from low-wealth households (those with incomes at twice the federal poverty level or below. That is more than twice the number of children served by existing capacity.

Expanding services and raising quality of some existing services will cost, the task force estimates, $14.5 million to $15.5 million. That is an initially daunting number, to be sure, but as task force co-chairwoman Linda Chappel mused at Thursday’s presentation of the report, “I’d love to see how much it costs to incarcerate adults.”

The task force report makes clear that, as Chappel said, it is “the beginning of the conversation.” At least two public feedback sessions will be held by August. The task force recommends hiring the equivalent of a full-time person to ensure we carry on planning -- and identifying funding mechanisms. As a community, we need influential leaders to step up and lead the effort to make this happen.

We have the capacity to do this, to be a model for commitment to pre-K education. If we fail to meet the challenge, we could regret it for generations.

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