When I was young, I would accompany my father, a pediatrician, on his rounds at hospitals across Chicago. He routinely gave parents of the children he examined a short booklet he had written on how to be an involved parent. While it included many tips, his central point was that parents needed to read to their children. The earlier they started, he stressed, the better.
I am reminded of this as I observe the stale and senseless debate in Washington over the value of early education.
Too many Republicans today ridicule the value of early education. That would come as a shock to their parents, many of whom, no doubt, read to them when they were young and made sure they had many educational experiences. Democrats, on the other hand, want universal early education and are willing to spend whatever is required. But more money for more slots will not automatically achieve the goal of preparing children to learn.
Largely missing from this debate are the essential role that parents play in their children’s education and the importance of the quality of a child’s early learning experience. Parents must be engaged or their children will be shortchanged. In addition, the hours in preschool must provide high-quality learning built around best practices so the time does not become just expensive babysitting.
Because early education is so important to every child’s success, I made it a priority upon becoming mayor of Chicago. Our efforts involved four steps:
First, we made full-day kindergarten universal. Before this change, thousands of our city’s kindergartners were in school for only about two hours a day. Neither federal or state governments provided any resources for this purpose, so we had to finance it ourselves through cuts in the central office.
Second, we set up a local "Race to the Top" for any and all providers of early childhood education. For the first time, all schools and community-based organizations — public, nonprofit, for-profit, faith-based and charter — were invited to apply. Our sole focus was on finding and funding those programs that work.
Because of our new emphasis on quality, 28 substandard early learning programs were eliminated while others were given additional dollars to expand their services. Chicago now funds 95 faith-based early education providers — a first for the city. Also, for the first timeall early education instructors across the system have a bachelor’s degree. That had been true for our public school programs but not for third-party programs funded by the city.
Third, while adding 5,000 more children to pre-kindergarten, we also provided "wraparound services" for parents. These include intensive training and support, health and counseling services and basic education for parents, if needed. A parent is a child’s most important teacher. Most want to do right by their kids but may not know how to do so. We want the educational experience children receive at school to be enhanced when they go home. So our city is giving parents the tools they need to help their children.
Fourth, we developed an early learning Web portal to help parents find programs, assess their quality and determine their child’s eligibility. This information is available even to families without Internet access. By texting their Zip code to a designated phone number, parents can learn about the early education opportunities in their communities.
By increasing access, pursuing quality and ensuring that parents are more involved, all children in Chicago will be ready to learn when they enter their full day of kindergarten. No longer will children from certain neighborhoods start school already behind. Because of our unprecedented investment in pre-K education, 75 percent of our city’s 3- and 4-year-olds living at poverty level or below now have access to quality early learning.
It’s time for our leaders in Washington to grow up and stop talking past one another. Republicans can’t say they believe in families without providing the early education opportunities children need to succeed. Democrats are wrong to equate more funding and more slots with better results.
Universal mediocrity cannot be our goal. Instead, we must infuse our national effort to promote early learning with measurable quality and parental support to ensure its success. Our kids — and our country — deserve nothing less.
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The writer, a Democrat, is mayor of Chicago.
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