Terry_Brooks_KYAThis post originally appeared as an op-ed in the Courier-Journal on April 17th. Read it online here. We are pleased to report that, prior to its publication, Senator Rand Paul joined members of the Senate HELP Committee in unanimous support of a bipartisan amendment to improve and expand early learning programs. For more information about the the amendment, see a statement from the First Five Years Fund.

We thank Senator Paul for supporting early learning and ask Senator McConnell to join him in supporting it when it comes to the Senate floor. 

For the first time in over a decade, Congress is considering the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), currently known as No Child Left Behind, the nation’s most important piece of education legislation. An April 10 column asked Congress to ensure we continue to measure and hold states accountable for closing achievement gaps. I agree, but would suggest that the best way to achieve this goal is to ensure ESEA includes a focus on young children.

Over the years, Republicans and Democrats in Kentucky and elsewhere have been doing more and more to show their support for our youngest learners. But, more remains to be done.

Results of a recent statewide school readiness assessment found that 51 percent of Kentucky students were not prepared to start kindergarten in 2014. The percent of students not ready for kindergarten was even higher for minority, low-income and disabled students, highlighting the sad fact that too few of our children are being exposed to high-quality early learning experiences that prepare them with the skills they need to succeed.

If we want students in our communities to graduate ready for the challenges of college and career, we must have an education system that recognizes the fundamental role that the earliest years of life play in a child’s development.

We’ve heard it again and again. High-quality early childhood education is one of the most cost-effective ways to improve education, health and economic outcomes for our nation and create better economic opportunities for children and their families. Business leaders know it. Military leaders have reinforced it. The nation’s top researchers have vouched for it. And public polling has shown overwhelming voter demand. Now, we need Sen. Rand Paul to lead in Washington, D.C., and turn this support into legislative action.

Sen. Paul has an opportunity to move the needle in a meaningful direction for early childhood education with ESEA reauthorization. Sen. Paul serves on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee, which is working on this legislation, and chairs the Subcommittee on Children and Families, putting him in an prime position to stand up for children in Kentucky. Lawmakers — Democrats and Republicans alike — should consider ways to develop, expand and increase access to high-quality early childhood education for children from low- and moderate-income families, particularly through dedicated funding to local and state efforts.

Children who attend quality early learning programs are 50 percent less likely to require special education services, 29 percent more likely to graduate high school, and also have a 33 percent higher salary than their peers who did not attend an early learning program. Investments in our youngest learners, from birth to age 5, are the clearest path to fulfilling the promise of ESEA: graduating children who are college-and-career ready.

Unfortunately, ESEA as it currently exists hasn’t kept pace with the rate at which states and local school districts have sought to expand early education programs, or the ample evidence that support shows the impact early childhood education has on future success in school and life. With this opportunity to re-examine our current education system, we can recognize that students build the foundation for successful, lifelong learning in the earliest stages of life. We can also do better to align and integrate early learning into the K-12 system so kids are properly supported as they transition from their early years in school through third grade.

So Congress and Sen. Paul have a choice. We can choose to ignore widely cited evidence which proves that learning begins at birth — leaving some students behind before they even get a chance. Or, we can make a smart investment by enhancing federal-state partnerships under ESEA to ensure a continuum of care for all children from birth to age 5, complete with high-quality standards and state flexibility.

Momentum has been building for a major federal investment in early childhood education. Congress should embrace the widespread, bipartisan support for early learning by integrating it into the next iteration of ESEA in a meaningful way. This easy decision would be a huge leap forward for our nation’s students — and make economic sense for years to come.