Why We Need To Expand Access To Early Childhood Education

Many people don’t know that 90 percent of a child’s brain develops before the age of five. The early childhood years are critical for laying the foundation for the rest of a child’s life. Early interaction with parents, child-care providers and siblings all shape the nature and development of a child’s brain. But knowing something and doing something about it are two very different things.

We need to ensure that every child in Sonoma County has access to quality preschool to give them a strong start on the path to future success. High quality preschool is a necessity for our kids and should not be a luxury only available to relatively few families.

Studies show that children who have access to high quality preschools are more likely to read proficiently by third grade, graduate high school and attend college. Preschools provide learning environments with teachers who are trained specifically to work with young children and help them succeed. Preschool enables more young children to enter kindergarten ready to learn and excel in school — placing all students on equal footing the first day of kindergarten.

However, the reality in Sonoma County is that the cost of sending a child to preschool is out of reach for many of our families. More than half of local kids are not attending preschool. With a price tag of roughly $13,000 per year on average, preschool costs 39 percent of the median annual income for Sonoma County women.

In our schools today, we can see the impacts when families don’t have access to affordable, early childhood education.

In 2015, 64 percent of Sonoma County kids entered kindergarten unprepared, and only 39 percent of Sonoma County third-graders are reading at grade level.

Conventional wisdom suggests universal preschool only benefits low-income families. Not so. High quality preschool does reduce gaps in achievement for low-income students. However, we now know that by making early education available and affordable to families of all incomes — including middle-class families — we can strengthen K-12 education for all our kids and put them on the path to success.

Even with these pressing needs, unfortunately there is a massive shortage of preschool seats in Sonoma County. More than 2,000 children are on the waiting list for early childhood education programs and cannot get in.

We need to provide more preschool slots to ensure that these kids who need preschool have a place to get it.

First 5 Sonoma County funds programs and services that promote, support and improve the early development of children through age five. However, we must do more to invest in early education to ensure that our children have a solid foundation to succeed and be competitive from the start.

As we encourage a countywide conversation on these needs through our public education initiative, First 5 Sonoma County is working to get input from residents on their priorities for the education and development of Sonoma County’s youngest children.

We want to hear from as many residents as possible throughout the county. Please take our “Ready to Learn” community survey online at www.first5sonomacounty.org/ready-to-learn.

Working together we can prepare the next generation for a better and more successful tomorrow. And as our children succeed, we gain the skilled workforce needed to keep our economy robust and the civic leadership to keep our communities strong.

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