The demand for quality early learning, and what Springdale has been able to deliver, have both increased dramatically since Rollins started. Ten years ago, Springdale served 340 preschool students. Last fall, enrollment grew 800 percent, thanks in part to the federal Preschool Development Grant Arkansas received. And just as Superintendent Rollins said they would, Springdale early learning teachers work every day to teach them all, as I observed firsthand.

Personifying growth

One of Springdale’s early learning success stories comes from Alondra Bahena, a seventh-grader at Sonora Middle School. As the fourth of five children in her family, she was the first to attend the Springdale Early Childhood Center. The results have been remarkable. Her teachers say today she is excelling not only academically (she recently received a strong score on the ACT as part of tthe Duke Talent Search), but also socially and emotionally as well.

“I can see a huge difference in Alondra compared to her older siblings. She is much more confident in everything she does and is extremely dedicated to school and other activities. Getting an opportunity to learn at an early age has been so helpful,” her mother, Argelia, says, noting that Alondra plans to pursue a career in forensic science after college. “I know she can do whatever she sets her mind to.”

"The average child from a low-income family enters kindergarten 12-14 months behind her more advantaged peers in pre-literacy and language skills." 

By the numbers

No other investment in our children matters more than the quality of education we provide to them—especially from the earliest years. A recent analysis integrating evaluations of 84 preschool programs concluded that, on average, children gain about a third of a year of additional learning across language, reading and math skills.

Studies also demonstrate how quality early education can have long-term benefits for children—including better health, increased graduation rates and higher employment rates. Expanding early learning—including high-quality preschool—provides society with a return on investment of $8.60 for every $1 spent—about half of the return on investment originates from increased earnings for children when they grow up.

Level playing field

We know the average child from a low-income family enters kindergarten 12-14 months behind her more advantaged peers in pre-literacy and language skills. And, often, it’s possible to trace a line from starting out behind to dropping out to diminished life chances. Our children need advocates for the strong start they deserve, and for people to stand up for quality preschool in their communities.

This is a bipartisan issue. In the 2015-16 budget year, for example, 32 states and the District of Columbia increased funding by nearly $767 million for preschool (22 states with Republican governors and 10 states with Democratic governors, plus DC). And a recent poll found that 76 percent of voters support the idea of using federal resources to expand access to public preschool.

This is a matter of equity: all students, regardless of income, race or disability, must have access to high-quality early learning opportunities. Yet, a report from the U.S. Department of Education shows that roughly 6 in 10 four-year-olds in America are not enrolled in publicly funded preschool programs, and even fewer are enrolled in the highest-quality programs.

Our character as a nation is defined by the powerful idea that opportunity should extend to all, and by the promise that each of us can make of our lives what we will. We can keep that promise to our children by providing them with a world-class education, and we must start early.