Universal preschool plan should prioritize equity and model Head Start

This op/ed on universal preschool was originally published in The Hill.

Right now, through the American Families Plan, President Biden is calling for a national partnership with states to offer free, high-quality preschool to all three- and four-year-olds. This proposal to scale learning opportunities for all children has the potential to transform society.

Universalizing preschool signals that early learning and care are so critical to America’s success and future that everyone needs access — something that early childhood educators and scientists alike have widely agreed on since Head Start’s founding in 1965.

Indeed, the willingness to commit to a preschool-for-all system is a thrilling prospect for those of us in the world of early childhood education and care. The National Head Start Association wholeheartedly welcomes these efforts to provide Congress and, ultimately, state leaders with a blueprint to help our nation’s youngest learners and their caregivers.

But here’s the truth: We can’t waste this once-in-a-generation chance on simply trying to scale preschool. We must be clear that what we need to focus on is scaling equity.

If the last 60 years have taught us anything, however, it is this: Universal access alone cannot ensure equitable outcomes for all of our nation’s children and families.

The explicit goal must be equity.

Why? Lack of access to consistent, comprehensive early childhood care, learning, and family support services has a disproportionate impact on Black, Hispanic, American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian-American and migrant children. Likewise, achievement gaps in many of these communities remain persistently high. And it is these families who are struggling most with poverty, food insecurity, unstable housing, and the devastating impacts of COVID-related loss and trauma.

So how do we, as a nation, scale equity as we scale preschool? The answer is obvious: build the new, universal pre-K system around the Head Start model.

The Head Start model is the most studied and proven in the U.S. with evidence of both short- and long-term positive impacts. The power of the model is that it recognizes children and families as individuals and meets them where they are. Widely considered a triumph in child development, it ensures children have access they need for social, emotional, cognitive and physical growth and connects families to critical wraparound services like food support, job training, housing vouchers, help with utilities and health systems.

When Head Start began a new era was born, ushering in many of the same successes that the American Families Plan hopes to perpetuate: Higher labor force participation among parents, increases to family earnings and economic growth. In the years that followed, states across the country saw the benefits and launched their own models for preschool. While some created their systems with Head Start as the benchmark, many did not — yielding uneven pre-K results. Just as early childhood experiences last a lifetime, these uneven results last generations.

Any federal expansion of early childhood education and care that doesn’t place equity at its center will fail to meet our society’s future needs. This is the only way we will make meaningful progress towards the issues the American Families Plan’s preschool proposal sets out to solve — supporting the workforce, closing the achievement gap and paving the way for the best-educated generation in U.S. history.

About NHSA

The National Head Start Association is committed to the belief that every child, regardless of circumstances at birth, has the ability to succeed in school and in life. The opportunities offered by Head Start lead to healthier, empowered children and families, and stronger, more vibrant communities. NHSA is the voice for more than 1 million children, 270,000 staff and 1,600 Head Start grant recipients in the United States. ••• Media Contact: Emily Wagner, Director of Communications, media@nhsa.org

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