An Easy Reach Across the Aisle on Education

The Obama administration deserves praise for its recent strong support for greater investments in early childhood education. With reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (No Child Left Behind in its current incarnation) stalled in Congress, and the many valid concerns about narrow test-based initiatives that do nothing to address the challenges of children from disadvantaged families, this new direction is a welcome change. In addition, it has the potential be a winner because it should gain the support of both Republicans and Democrats.

As a co-chair of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, I have been highly critical of the lack of policy attention to the many out-of-school factors that impede the learning of children growing up in disadvantaged families. Moreover, the BBA report we recently released illustrates the lack of promise of narrow test-driven reforms, and their tendency to cause unintended harm. We are thus delighted to see a policy with real promise gain the attention of the President and Secretary Duncan. We urge members of Congress from both parties to move forward on early childhood education, an uncontroversial policy with substantial benefits for all.

Investments in children from birth to kindergarten are among the smartest we can make. Governors from both parties champion pre-kindergarten and home visiting programs, key components of the administration's proposed initiative. Indeed, the annual yearbook from the National Institute for Early Education Research illustrates that pre-k's greatest strength -- in terms of both access and quality -- is clustered heavily in the South, a region not always known for its progressive policies. While such investments clearly promote social justice and equity, statements of support from the US Chamber of Commerce and the Business Roundtable, among others, make clear that this agenda also strongly appeals to economic interests.

Brain researchers have demonstrated that investing in children's early years provides is a unique opportunity to nurture all domains of development. Given the current policy focus on nurturing not only cognitive skills, but so-called "soft" skills -- perseverance, problem solving, team work -- early childhood education is critical. Indeed, Nobel Laureate James Heckman argues that failing to make that investment works against efforts to cultivate a generation of college- and career-ready high school graduates.

Yet for the first time in many years, investments in early childhood programs are in decline. This trend fundamentally threatens our ability to make full use of our greatest resource, our people and interferes with other efforts to improve educational attainment, especially for disadvantaged students.

My home state of North Carolina has long been a leader in early childhood programs. Starting in the early 1990s, then Governor Hunt led a crusade to address the many challenges facing disadvantaged children, and for 15 years the state's Smart Start Initiative and, later, its More at Four programs were recognized as models for other states. Various studies have documented their success in addressing the challenges of early childhood. In new, but still preliminary, research with two Duke colleagues, we confirm that both programs have generated positive returns in the form of higher achievement in third grade and reductions in special education placements. Yet North Carolina, like many other states, is cutting back just when the return would be highest. Between 2011 and 2012, both the percentage of 4-year-olds served and spending per-pupil declined. Federal investments that bolster existing investments and help build a comprehensive system of supports could not come at a better time.

We must be careful not to promise too much. Investments in children's first years cannot, alone, close achievement gaps. Nor can even high-quality pre-k programs inoculate children against the damage wrought by the under-resourced and poorly staffed schools that serve many of our most disadvantaged students. Nonetheless without such investments, efforts to improve those schools may well be wasted. We must embrace broader, bolder K-12 strategies that, along with improving the quality of the schools that disadvantaged children attend, also provide a richer environment for them before they enter school and enrich their out- of- school time as they progress through school.

Reaching across the aisle to help close this early opportunity gap would help restore public confidence in our federal lawmakers, and lay a strong foundation for smarter, more comprehensive education reform.

Helen F. Ladd is the Edgar T. Thompson Professor of Public Policy at the Sanford School.  This commentary was originally published in The Huffington Post.