(NNPA)—A few weeks ago, the nation’s 50 million public school children returned to the classroom. According to the U.S. Department of Education, this included a record 3.8 million kindergarteners. While we should be pleased that enrollments are up, we cannot ignore the fact that, if current trends persist, many of those eager five-year-olds will never earn a high school diploma.
More than a million American students drop out of high school each year, with graduation rates in some of our largest cities at less than 40 percent.
Instead of being on their way to lives of productive adulthood, too many of our young people, before they even start school, have already been snagged by what Marian Wright Edelman of the Children’s Defense Fund calls America’s “cradle to prison pipeline.” That insidious pipeline is fueled by a combination of poverty, single-parent families, disparities in health care, under-performing schools, unequal treatment by the criminal justice system, misguided values and the lack of high quality early childhood learning opportunities.
Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives took a big step towards reversing that trend with the passage of an $8 billion Early Learning Challenge Fund, designed to raise standards and improve training and oversight of programs serving infants, toddlers and preschoolers.
This new effort, now awaiting Senate approval, is a central component of President Obama’s early education agenda. His stimulus plan, for example, included $4 billion in new money for child care and education programs, including Head Start, which currently serves about 900,000 preschoolers.
While the new stimulus funds are largely designed to increase the number of children who have access to early childhood education, the Early Learning Challenge Fund is devoted to improving the quality of pre-school programs, which in many cases is uneven and loosely regulated. According to The New York Times, this lack of structure, standards and accountability often means that “…poor children, even many who have access to government-financed early care or learning programs, tend to enter kindergarten less prepared for school than those with wealthier parents.”
States receiving the funding would be required to develop measurable strategies to address essential aspects of program quality, such as child health and safety, the qualifications of staff, and program effectiveness.
The National Urban League applauds this new effort. It is consistent with the education goal of our recently announced Centennial Empowerment Plan which challenges the nation to ensure that every American child is ready for college, ready for work and ready for life by the year 2025. Research shows that quality childhood education for all is essential to achieving that goal. But all of us, especially young people themselves must do our part.
As President Obama said during his back-to-school speech to the nation’s students on Sept. 8th, “…at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world—and none of it will matter unless all of you…put in the hard work it takes to succeed.” From pre-school to high school, that’s a lesson all our children need to learn.
(Marc Morial is president and CEO of the Nation Urban League.)