By Anthony Vincent LeClair
The Annie E. Casey Foundation’s latest KIDS COUNT policy report, The First Eight Years: Building a Foundation for Lifetime Success shines a light on our nation’s troubling lack of investment in the earliest years of our children’s lives. As a nation, we have ignored decades of research consensus on brain and child development research that clearly shows our most vulnerable children are not receiving the social and emotional support they need. These early supports are necessary for all children to acquire the foundational skills required for success in the classroom and beyond. Sadly, Texas has followed the national trend of underinvestment rather than standing up and leading the nation in a direction that prioritizes the cognitive growth and wellbeing of our youngest and most underserved children.
This new KIDS COUNT report highlights several areas where children are not receiving the basic levels of support they need prior to entering elementary school. In Texas, 67 percent of our low-income three and four year olds are not enrolled in preschool. By the age of six, two in three low-income, Texas children will not have had a single developmental screening by a doctor. Unfortunately, this means that we are unable to identify potential problems that can be targeted for early intervention. With more than half (53 percent) of our 3.5 million Texas children, below the age of nine, identified as low-income (under 200% of the Federal poverty measure), it is imperative that we prioritize our federal and state investments on policies aimed at preparing our youngest in those critical first years of life.
To prepare our children and Texas for a bright future, the report offers three broad policy recommendations:
- Support parents so they can effectively care and provide for their children by streamlining state and federal support services and aligning recertification dates for programs that serve low-income Texas families.
- Increase access to high-quality birth through age eight programs, beginning with investments that target low-income children. Access to coordinated healthcare and education services can help us identify any disabilities or developmental delays that may require prevention or early intervention services.
- Develop comprehensive, integrated programs and data systems to address all aspects of a child’s development and support their transition to elementary school. Coordinated educational efforts can help us prepare our children for the life ahead.
Our budgets are the purest reflection of our values and priorities. And yet, we continue to see major cuts to early childhood education. The last round of the automatic federal spending cuts, known as “Sequester,” resulted in 4,800 fewer Texas children in Head Start. The cuts to Head Start also compound the fact that Texas served fewer 4-year-olds in Pre-Kindergarten programs in 2011-12 (50 percent) than in 2010-11 (52 percent).[i] Our lack of commitment cannot continue if we value a healthy and highly-skilled next generation of Texans. For our children to develop the vital skills they need for the road ahead, it is imperative that their development not be hindered by the effects of poverty and the failure to enact policy. We must create opportunities for our children and their families to receive the necessary support services that will allow for children to fully develop their cognitive abilities.