Early childhood is a time of growth and learning for children, with some of the most important physical, mental, emotional and social development taking place during the earliest years of a child’s life. This critical time provides us with an opportunity to invest in our children in a way that will benefit them throughout their lives. But according to America’s Report Card 2012: Children in the U.S., a report by First Focus and Save the Children that assesses the overall well-being of American children, we are not doing enough to invest in our kids during their earliest years. America’s Report Card 2012 gave a C- for Early Childhood, based on early learning programs and access to child care.

An important early learning program for young children is state-funded pre-K. This gives families an option outside of private pre-K that prepares young children to enter primary school with the knowledge base and social and academic skills to succeed. Despite the major benefits of high quality early education, we have seen states cut funding; during the 2009-2010 school year, the first cuts to spending on state-funded pre-K in ten years occurred. Unfortunately, the cuts continued during the 2010-2011 school year, worsening the trend. In addition, Arizona eliminated its state-funded pre-K program, leaving only 39 states and the District of Columbia with state-funded pre-K programs. In addition to Arizona’s elimination of their program, 26 other states made funding cuts to state pre-K. This resulted in decreased spending per pupil nationwide. The cuts were partially offset by funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), but this funding is only temporary. Funding levels affect the quality of state-funded pre-K. As of the 2010-2011 school year, 43 percent of children in state-funded pre-K programs were in programs that met less than half of ten research-based quality benchmarks. This is not the time to cut funding to these programs; we need to improve quality and access to state-funded pre-K.

In addition, Head Start and Early Head Start provide low-income families an essential early learning program. Both have had increased enrollment from 2009 to 2010, but this increase is likely thanks to $2.1 billion of ARRA funds. But when these funds run out in 2012 enrollment, already well below 50 percent of eligible children, is expected to drop even lower. In addition, to improve Head Start and Early Head Start we need to invest in teachers of early learning programs. Teachers in pre-K and Head Start often receive lower salaries than their counterparts in elementary school, which can direct some of the most qualified applicants to other professions. In addition, early learning teachers should be given adequate professional development opportunities.

Another essential aspect of promoting a successful early childhood comes from ensuring affordable, high quality child care. Unfortunately, the trend in child care assistance is not promising. Today, many children live in single-parent families or in two-parent families where both parents work. The need for child care is increasing, but the child care services that are available to families are often expensive, far beyond the means of many working families. The Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) was created to help low-income working families pay for child care, but only one in six qualifying families receive assistance. Additionally, many states are reducing funding or restricting the eligibility requirements for families to qualify, resulting in 23 states with waiting lists of families that qualify for and want child care assistance but do not receive it due to inadequate funds.

Though there are some troubling trends, there are also a number of promising programs to improve early childhood education and care. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) authorizes grants for states to create home visitation programs. These programs provide families with in-home education by a trained nurse about maternal and child health so that families can better prepare and care for their children. Another grant program to promote early childhood comes from the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge. This competitive program awards funds to states that demonstrate a commitment to improving access to quality early learning programs for low-income children. This program has a large potential for success, but funding and outreach need to be expanded to fully experience the benefits it can offer.

There are many steps Americans can take to improve the early lives of our children. We need to fully fund Head Start, Early Head Start and CCDBG to increase their reach and quality. Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization should encourage collaboration between early education and K-12 education. We need to improve the quality standards of child care programs and providers through licensing of facilities, training of providers, and regulation of child care assistance funds. This will help create a cohesive system for funding early learning programs. We also need to invest more in working families through utilizing dual-generation strategies, paid sick-days, and family leave insurance. By promoting and investing in programs that enhance the strength of early childhood and families, Americans can take steps to ensure that the future is brighter for all current and future generations.