Of the 535 members of Congress, each person comes to Washington with his or her own, unique background.
Of course, we come from 50 diverse states, but we’re also a collection of military veterans, farmers, business owners, and much more. As for me, I came to Congress as a mother and preschool teacher; someone who was once told that I couldn’t make a difference because I was only “a mom in tennis shoes.”
But when I got here, I knew that if we wanted to strengthen our economy and give our kids a brighter future, we couldn’t wait until they were teenagers or adults to invest in them. I had seen in my own classroom that when young children get the attention they need, they’re miles ahead of their peers on the path to success.
I saw that my own students knew to raise their hand to ask a question, or how to stand in line to go to recess, were the ones prepared to tackle a full curriculum in school.
That’s why this week, I joined Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and a bipartisan group of colleagues to introduce legislation that will give every American child access to high quality early education.
The Strong Start for America’s Children Act aims to increase significantly access to and the quality of early learning programs that start when a child is born and last until their first day of kindergarten.
The legislation authorizes a federal program that supports individual states’ efforts to educate their youngest citizens.
It ensures that early learning programs everywhere have quality teachers and meet high standards, but it also provides states, school districts and preschool programs the flexibility they need to meet their local children’s needs.
And though I approach this issue as a grandmother, a mother and a former preschool teacher, many of my colleagues have their own reasons to support early education.
The former law enforcement officers, lawyers and sheriffs whom I work with know that when we invest in our children at a young age, they’re more likely to stay out of trouble and out of prison.
The business leaders and economists know that when we spend a dollar on a child’s education in the first few years of their life, we save as much as $17 throughout their lives.
Our military leaders tell me that 75 percent of our nation’s 17- to 24-year-olds are ineligible to serve their country, often because they’re unable to pass the necessary math and reading tests.
So it’s not only teachers who are fighting for preschool. It’s generals, sheriffs and CEOs, too.
And 50 years of research backs them up.
For example, we know that 80 percent of a person’s brain development occurs before the age of 5. But while China is aiming to provide 70 percent of its children with three years of preschool by 2020 and India is doing the same, we don’t have a national strategy to get the youngest Americans ready to learn.
Nobel-prize winning economist James Heckman, a well-known advocate for early learning, says that “skill begets skill.” So when a child who’s benefitted from early education knows how to open a book and turn a page, someone can teach them to read. But in classrooms across our country, some children are still learning to hold a pencil when their peers are already spelling out their own names.
That gap between children who start school ready to succeed and those who don’t has serious implications for our country’s future.
Though historically we’ve invested in education to build a path to middle class, we’re falling behind. We now rank 28th globally in the proportion of 4-year-olds enrolled in preschool, and 25th in public funding for early learning.
That cannot continue.
So, in the coming weeks and months, we’ll be working with all our colleagues in Congress to make smart investments in our education system and move this legislation forward.
Many Democrats, including President Obama, are committed to expanding early education, and many Republicans, including governors in conservative states like Oklahoma and Georgia have shown that quality early learning programs work.
For all of us, the time to start teaching is now.
Patty Murray is the senior U.S. senator from Washington state. She is the chair of the Senate Budget Committee, a senior member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and an original co-sponsor of the Strong Start for America’s Children Act. She wrote this for the McClatchy-Tribune News Service.