Recently, an editorial in this newspaper explained investing in early childhood education as an easy sell in this year’s state elections. The same is true for the City of New Orleans, which has a unique opportunity to leverage a dollar-for-dollar state matching fund this year to expand access to quality early care and education. I want to offer my perspective as the leader of one of our leading institutions of higher education.
By 2020, nearly two-thirds of U.S. jobs will require post-secondary education. Yet fewer than 45% of adult Americans currently have earned an associate degree or higher.
The talent and ability needed to succeed in higher education and to advance our society are not relegated solely to those of higher means. A 2017 study ranked Xavier University sixth in the nation for social mobility, whereby students from the lower 40% of the U.S. income distribution enter the upper 40 percent. Our success and the success of other HBCUs should dispel any notion that talent is associated with socioeconomic status.
Yet we do not assure education and opportunity for students from all backgrounds. We have been too comfortable as a city and a nation with very good schools and opportunities for the haves and less than good ones for the have-nots.
Too many students, particularly students from low-income families, show up at our doors requiring remedial courses to acquire the math and language skills that are normally mastered by the end of high school. Countless more students never have a chance to matriculate at an institution like Xavier University because they didn’t receive the support they needed earlier in their academic careers.
The building blocks for high school, college and future success are laid early. Research on brain development and early learning shows that much of the foundation for a child’s future learning is already established when the child enters kindergarten. In New Orleans, however, a lack of access to quality early care and education means two-thirds of third graders in our public schools are not reading on grade-level. Providing a real chance for achievement for our low-income students means increasing access to quality early care and education, particularly for the nearly 10,000 New Orleans children, birth through age 3, whose hard-working families cannot afford the costs.
Our local leaders made history by investing funds in the 2018 city budget to increase access to quality early care and education for low-income children, birth through age 3. They doubled this investment last year and have seen the state, the federal government, and philanthropy increase their investments during this time.
As the mayor and City Council work to finalize the city budget over the next month, they have a chance to make history once again. Nobel Laureate James Heckman has shown a $13 return on investment for every $1 invested in high-quality early care and education, stating that there is no better investment government can make. With the potential for the first time of a dollar-to-dollar state match for every additional dollar the city invests in early care and education this year, the value of this investment is undeniable. Children and their families are waiting for these opportunities.
It is time for the city, once again, to increase its investment in early childhood education. It is one of the smartest investments our local elected officials can make.
C. Reynold Verret is president of Xavier University of Louisiana.