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Strengthen ESEA With Early Childhood Education | Commentary

As Congress debates the reauthorization of our nation’s most important education legislation, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, I’m reminded of the true bipartisan effort Congress has displayed in the past few months. In its endeavors, one issue has particularly emerged as a priority for both Republicans and Democrats, despite major legislative battles and tough funding choices.

The issue? Early childhood education.

Recently, Congress has demonstrated significant bipartisanship on two separate early childhood initiatives for kids from birth to age 5 — reaffirming the growing momentum around an issue that scientists, researchers, business leaders, economists and military leaders all agree is one of the best investments our country can make.

As part of the Medicare “doc fix,” Congress overwhelmingly passed a multi-year extension of the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting program. Home visiting — crucial, voluntary programs for new parents with children — has seen overwhelming support from Democratic and Republican lawmakers at the state and federal levels, as well as significant support from the medical, law enforcement and education communities. With $800 million in funding for the next two years, state and local home visiting programs will continue to help strengthen families and provide new parents with skills to support their children’s early development.

Simultaneously, a bipartisan team of legislators led by Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., created new pathways for state and local leaders to increase access to early learning opportunities, even establishing a dedicated funding stream for early childhood education through the ESEA. The bipartisan amendment, introduced by Murray and Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., dedicates funding to states that propose to improve coordination, quality and access for early childhood education.

All of these bipartisan achievements reveal a broader trend. Policymakers in Washington have finally caught on to what economists, business leaders, state officials and educators have known for some time: The vitality of our economy relies on the success of our nation’s children. Research study after research study show that investments in high-quality early learning programs for our children from birth to age 5 offer a return on investment through improved education, health and economic outcomes as well as reduced spending on social programs.

Just as important, voters are clamoring for action on the issue. National polling from the First Five Years Fund shows that voters of all political stripes identify early childhood education as a top political priority. Even more, 71 percent of voters support a major federal investment in early childhood education — including majorities of Republicans (60 percent), independents (68 percent) and Democrats (84 percent).

So, while there’s bipartisan progress on early childhood education to celebrate, a huge opportunity still awaits to turn this demand into legislative action. Our efforts should be focused on developing, expanding and increasing access to high-quality early childhood education for children from low- and moderate-income families. Furthermore, policymakers can help ensure that early learning is better integrated into the K-12 system.

If the ESEA is to truly fulfill its goal of graduating students who are fully prepared for success in college and career, the law must recognize that education begins at birth. Congress would be wise to continue its bipartisan efforts and embrace the ESEA as a way to give our youngest children an early opportunity to succeed and enter the K-12 system ready to learn by approving a dedicated funding stream for early childhood education. The economic future of our country depends on it.

Kris Perry is the executive director of the First Five Years Fund.

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