NEW YORK — Millions of middle-class and wealthy American parents assume preschool to be an important part of their 3- and 4-year-old children's lives, but that's far from the reality of this nation's working poor. At a time when the diversity of languages, educational backgrounds, and economic status among families is rapidly widening in almost every state in the nation, a massive expansion of affordable preschool is ever more essential yet still far from being realized in too many states.
One of every 4 children under age 6 in the United States today is a child of immigrants, an extraordinary increase from just a decade ago. More than half of these children are from poor families, according to a recent report from the Urban Institute. These are exactly the families and children who can benefit most from strong early-education programs.
Preschools and prekindergartens that develop the skills, imaginations, and social and emotional capacities of 3- and 4-year-olds can transform children's lives, especially when the schools include social services and education for parents, such as classes on child development, literacy, or English as a second language. The cognitive and emotional benefits, mapped out in a landmark collection of studies published by the National Research Council and the Academy of Medicine five years ago, have been even more fully documented in the years since. With rapid cognitive growth occurring in a child's first five years, it is the prime time to lay the foundations for healthy and productive lives.
While these findings are valid for all children, the results are especially powerful for children from families that don't speak English at home, who are more likely to have a low income, or whose parents haven't had much formal education.
Children from poor families who take part in strong early-education programs are much less likely to need special education services or to be held back as they get older. They are far more likely than their peers to graduate from high school, stay out of trouble with the criminal justice system, and ultimately have better economic futures. In a study of the universal prekindergarten program in Tulsa, Okla., Hispanic children showed especially impressive gains on language and other skills that led to stronger reading in primary school.
Most states still balk at fully investing in preschool. Only nine states - Ohio, Massachusetts, New York, Illinois, New Jersey, Georgia, Florida, Texas, and California - spend more than $100 million each year on preschool subsidies. Yet it takes far more than that to support universal access and the kind of quality that generates convincing results.
A handful of smaller states, including Oklahoma and Wisconsin, have taken the important step of weaving preschool funding directly into their educational systems.
Millions of poor immigrant parents work in the ill-paid service sector economy on which Americans in most states have come to rely heavily. Their jobs only marginally support young families. As a result, in many parts of the nation, special education costs are likely to grow, dropout rates may rise, and problems of economic and social isolation and poverty will proliferate.
But they don't have to. Local schools can instead systematically connect with these kids and their families early on. Boosting wages would help, as would untying the insufferable knot that constitutes our nation's flawed immigration laws. But solutions to these huge problems remain distant and overwhelming; by comparison, creating high-quality preschools is easy.
Californians may have the chance to vote for a truly universal prekindergarten plan through a ballot proposal next June. New York began moving toward universal prekindergarten nearly a decade ago, but the investment has long since stalled, and just one quarter of the state's 4-year-olds are participating. Most are in half-day preschool, occasionally combined with full-day child care. There are so few full-day programs that most children of working parents simply can't take part.
Immigrants have become a fundamental part of communities and the economy in suburbs and cities across the US. It's time to get past the increasingly anachronistic policy debate about whether or not working-class immigrants have a place in this country and instead learn to adapt. A big first step would be the institutionalization of full-day preschool programs that help to strengthen families and improve communities over the long haul - for everyone.
• Andrew White is director of the Center for New York City Affairs at Milano: The New School for Management and Urban Policy.