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Legislator needs an education in the advantages of pre-K
May 27, 2017 Updated: May 29, 2017 3:28pm
Frankly, I’d like to start this column with a few choice words that wouldn’t be allowed in a family newspaper. But I’ll start with something positive.
At the end-of-school party for one of my daughters, I read a poem to her first-grade teacher, one of those rare educators – a child whisperer, really – who mixes discipline with love, respect and an uncanny ability to reach each child where he or she is, academically and emotionally.
The poem, called “Scaffolding,” by Seamus Heaney, is about the framework that goes into a structure that lasts. It ends this way:
So if, my dear, there sometimes seems to be
Old bridges breaking between you and me,
Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall,
Confident that we have built our wall.
To me, great teachers are the scaffolding, whose support, while temporary, builds a strong foundation that stays with a child forever.
The building metaphor also is an apt description for brain development in the first years of life, from birth to 5, when the mind’s architecture is formed. Connections are made, vocabulary grows, character traits emerge, and any kind of trauma – from hunger to neglect – can affect the sturdiness of that structure.
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It’s basic science. Ask any teacher, any pediatrician. It’s not a controversial concept, nor a partisan one. Republican Gov. Greg Abbott seems to understand how important this period is for children, so pivotal that he has demanded the Legislature fully fund his high-quality pre-kindergarten initiative. Again this session, lawmakers refused.
Of course, this was a session where legislators approved a budget with almost no new money for public schools of any kind but gave crisis pregnancy centers an extra $20 million to talk women out of abortion.
To be sure, there’s a genuine debate to be had about the definition of quality and which methods deliver lasting results. But science clearly shows that the best early education can ward off poverty’s effects: high dropout rates, drug abuse, welfare dependence and violent crime that can weaken society as a whole.
And it can save taxpayers billions, by reducing the costs of remedial and special education, crime, prison and health care. The Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University has calculated that high-quality early education provides a minimum of a 350 percent return on investment.
Apparently, not everyone got the memo.
Debating the need
I’ve watched many hours of debate on my laptop this legislative session. But an interview Friday of several senators with the Texas Tribune’s Evan Smith is the first that made me hit pause and scream from the top of my lungs.
As state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, lamented the under-funding of Abbott’s pre-K plan, explaining how such programs can help keep poor, African-American young men from the fate that often befalls those without access to quality education, fellow Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, could barely contain her laughter.
Smith asked her opinion.
“What a horrible world view,” she said. “To say that these kids who don’t go to pre-K are instantaneously gonna fail. This rhetoric that we have right now about this is unbelievable.”
She said there were statistics that refuted any that West might offer. Then she shared her own anecdote:
“I mean, I didn’t even go to kindergarten. And I’m a state senator right now. You know?”
Needing a ‘jump start’
West is an intelligent man, and a veteran senator. He’s also 6-foot-4 and played college football, but I digress. His restraint was something to behold.
“I respect your right to have an opinion,” he said. “… There are certain kids that need that jump start, so to speak.”
“At 3 and 4 years old? That’s what pre-K is,” she said, fully snickering now at the ridiculousness of it. “Three and 4 years old! I mean does everybody realize that?”
Yes, actually. Yes, we do.
“What are they going to jump start to?” she continued. “What are they going to do at 3 and 4 years old?”
Well, for one, hear words, many words. Research suggests that children in poverty hear tens of billions of fewer terms in the first few years than children with educated parents. That “word gap” is something from which many never recover. And an early positive association with books can last a lifetime. Academics aside, any pre-K parent can attest to the non-cognitive stuff: social skills, problem-solving, emotional control and character-building that goes on in early-childhood classrooms.
Many parents choose to teach these lessons at home – nobody’s forcing pre-K on anybody. In Texas, we don’t even require kindergarten. For those who need help, though, it should be there. Again, we all benefit.
Opening one’s mind
As for Burton, her ears seemed to perk up when West explained that sometimes, in poverty, we have parents who don’t know how to be parents, some who have assumed the role before even graduating high school.
“I agree with you,” Burton said. “So, pre-K is the answer?”
“It’s part of the answer,” West said. He didn’t have time to explain all the reasons why.
Carol Shattuck offered to help. The CEO of Collaborative for Children,a nonprofit that supports early education, invited Burton and others who doubt the value of pre-Kto visit classes in the fall.
“I’ll be happy to organize the tour!” she said.
That value is also covered in Paul Tough’s excellent book, “How Children Succeed.” But a book like that, which uses facts, data and science to help us contemplate solutions for children who desperately need them, isn’t for everyone.
It requires a certain level of open-mindedness and curiosity – a few things some of us picked up in kindergarten.