How the U.S. became one of the worst countries in the developed world for kids under 5.
Research has shown that unrelenting stress at a young age, known as toxic stress, causes long-lasting brain damage. The worse the damage, the harder it is for children to pay attention, absorb new information, or trust adults—all skills critical for success in school—as they get older.
In fact, the fate of all children is largely determined by their first years on this planet. Forming healthy relationships with adults early on lays the foundation for future healthy relationships. Exposure to language through stories, songs, and conversations sets the stage for academic achievement. Playing outside to master gross motor skills; creating art to master fine motor skills; pretending to be a doctor, chef, or firefighter to learn teamwork; building a tower of blocks to learn basic physics lessons—all of these activities are critical preparation for a successful school and adult life.
The most straightforward way to ensure all children have such experiences is to provide free or affordable high-quality preschool for them when they are 3- and 4-year-olds.
The idea is not as radical as it sounds. The United States has even provided universal public preschool before, for a few years during World War II. That program ended in 1946. Since then, a growing body of research has demonstrated the value of high-quality preschool for both children and their communities. Nearly every industrialized country has recognized that value and begun offering a version of universal public preschool for its children. Not the U.S.
“I think we value our children less than other nations do,” said Arne Duncan, the former U.S. secretary of education who pushed hard for increased federal investment in early care and education during his seven-year tenure in the Obama administration. “I don’t have an easier or softer or kinder way to say that.”
In 2012, the U.S. ranked 35th among developed economies in pre-primary- or primary-school enrollment for 3- to 5-year-olds, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an international economic association.
But that may be about to change for the first time since 1971, when former President Richard Nixon vetoed a bipartisan bill that would have created universal daycare.
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