President's Corner

Better Beginnings for Every Child

There are few times in the life of a child when the impact of wealth is as apparent as from birth to age 5. Children who through no fault of their own are born into poor families seldom have experiences that would enable them to enter formal schooling prepared to take full advantage of what is offered.

On the other hand, children who through no merit of their own are born into well-to-do families have experiences that enable them to take full advantage of what schooling has to offer.

One of the experiences that middle and upper class families provide for their children is some form of education before they enter formal schooling. Little research has to be done to support the conclusion that this experience is valuable. In addition, little research is needed to bolster the corollary that children without early childhood education experiences are at a disadvantage from the first day they enter school.

These conclusions were well known more than 30 years ago when the federal government initiated the Head Start program. The results of Head Start have confirmed these ideas. It has been demonstrated continuously that poor children with Head Start experience begin school with an advantage over poor children who do not have this opportunity.

Given our national commitment to giving everyone an equal opportunity to achieve, no American children should be deprived of early childhood education because their parents are poor. We all know, however, this is not the case.

In fact, even Head Start, which has been shown to be effective, has not been offered to most of the children who need it. This is disturbing in light of the statements that we hear to the effect that people would be willing to pay for educational programs as long as they work. Head Start works and yet it has never been fully funded.

The condition of our poor children and the educational disadvantages they suffer should compel us to confront our stated commitment to equal opportunity. If we are serious about this commitment, how can we ignore the inequality that exists?

We have some choices on this issue. We can acknowledge the gap that exists between our rhetoric and our actions and initiate steps to close that gap. On the other hand, we can at least be honest with ourselves and others and admit we really do not think everyone should have an equal opportunity. Finally, we can go on talking as if we believe in a democratic way of life while acting as if we believe that children who are poor should not have equal access to a decent education.

For the sake of all children, for the sake of our country and for our own sake, I hope we put aside all of the issues that can be so distracting in matters of this type, that we focus on the unmet needs of poor children and that we live up to the best of our national values and make equal opportunity a distinguishing reality.

If we do this, every child will, in the words of the first national goal that was established by President Bush, the nation’s governors and the nation’s business leaders in 1989 at the first Education Summit, enter the schoolhouse door ready to learn. Ironically, this goal was never mentioned at the third Education Summit this past September. Instead we focused on standards and assessment as if they, all by themselves, would solve our educational shortcomings.

My hope is that in the near future, we will really become serious as a nation about providing every child an equal chance to meet high educational standards and that when we become serious about that, we will make sure that all children have access to high quality preschool experiences.