By Mary Ellen Flannery / photo by Norman Y. Lono
What Professor Julie Bullard knows about the developing brain, U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan certainly does not.
Bullard (pictured below), a 2011 Professor of the Year and director of the Early Childhood Education program at the University of Montana-Western, has more than 30 years’ experience in the field. Currently she teaches teachers how to do it right—how to change the lives of the youngest Americans by providing them with the kind of high-quality early education that can compensate for their birth into deep poverty and disadvantage.
“People have realized that some students start out behind when they start kindergarten, and they don’t ever really catch up,” she said. “But a lot of research shows that making a difference in the early years has real potential to save money and enhance the lives of children.”
That is, investments in federal programs like Head Start, the school readiness program for nearly 1 million at-risk children across the country, actually do pay off. They save money in the long term by reducing eventual spending in areas of social services and health care, and increasing the ability of its graduates to earn more and pay more in taxes. It helps those kids grow up to be teachers, nurses, scientists, and more.
But, as Bullard also noted, it always seems to be a place where money can be cut—most recently, in the proposed budget from U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, chair of the House Budget Committee. Ryan’s plan would cut $1.1 billion and 200,000 kids from Head Start. Over the next decade that means more than 2 million poor children would lose the opportunity for high-quality early childhood education, according to NEA’s analysis. (As it stands, only 30 percent of eligible children actually participate in the program.)
Meanwhile, President Obama’s proposed budget would increase Head Start funding by $85 million, allowing 962,000 children to participate, and it also would provide an $825 million increase in federal block grants for child care, including $300 million for states to invest directly in teachers and programs.
Ryan’s budget, on the other hand, “translates directly into lost opportunities and outcomes for our students,” said Roberto Rodriguez, President Obama’s education policy advisor, last week. “It really has the potential of turning us backwards.”
It sounds like old times to Bullard too. “When I began in early childhood, people were still thinking of early childhood as babysitting. You’d testify before a state legislature, and they still believed women should stay home, that their support of early education would destroy families.”
Things changed, she noted, when welfare reformers began to understand that they’d have to provide childcare to women who were leaving welfare rolls for the workplace. And furthermore, when the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act began to provide better, specialized data to education advocates, it became clear that poor children had a serious disadvantage that they rarely were able to overcome, she said.
All children can benefit from quality early childhood education, but poor children need it especially if they’re ever going to catch up to their middle-class peers. That means a rich environment, said Bullard, who also is the author of “Creating Environments for Learning: Birth to Age Eight.” It should be stocked with developmentally appropriate materials, and adults who interact meaningfully with those children, helping them deepen the knowledge that they’re gaining through play and hands-on activities.
There should be appropriate assessments, Bullard said, which should “feel like more playing” to those students. And the results should guide curriculum, which should be aligned with standards. There should be really meaningful relationships with families.
All of this costs money, of course, but Bullard maintains that early childhood education should be funded consistently in the same way that lawmakers pay for public elementary, secondary, and higher education. “We’ve had a really hard time making that happen in early childhood, that every child would get X amount of dollars,” she said.
Instead, the costs of early childhood education are mostly borne by families, and research shows that “children in the lowest-income families are usually in the lowest-quality child care,” she noted. “It’s really creating an unfair situation.”
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