The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) just released its annual report on the state of early childhood education (ECE).

The news isn’t good.

COVID’s devastating impact extended to ECE in a number of ways. Enrollment declined in all but six states, with nearly 300,000 fewer kids in ECE programs nationwide, marking the first decline in national enrollment in 20 years.

At the same time, partially due to that declining enrollment, state funding of ECE dropped in over half the country. The total decrease in state funding was $254 million nationwide, the largest drop since the Great Recession of 2008–09.

Finally, COVID slowed progress around the quality of these programs, compromising best practices as a result of staff shortages, closures, and shifts to online instruction. Currently, only four programs meet all 10 of NIEER’s quality benchmarks, and 14 programs meet fewer than half of those benchmarks, including three of the four programs with the most students: California, Florida, and Texas.

If you’re looking for a bright side, it’s that the last two years were obviously unique. The negative conditions that created this damage won’t be repeated on a yearly basis. Even if no action is taken, we likely won’t see declines to enrollment and state funding like we saw last year.

But failing to act is not a viable option. The current state of preschool presents a losing proposition for the next generation of Americans.

Even before COVID’s impact, millions of young children in the United States did not have access to high-quality ECE programs. Granted, COVID made conditions significantly worse, but even the pre-COVID status quo needed more comprehensive and durable investment.

Now, that need has grown. And it’s a need that I and my colleagues in the business community feel acutely. High-quality ECE can have significant positive effects on children – effects that can shape children’s entire lives, including their career trajectories.

Part of the value of ECE is that it impacts children at a unique time of brain development. During the first few years of life, children form one million new neural connections every second. That irreplaceable period of neural activity means that infants, toddlers, and preschoolers need nurturing, stimulating environments for healthy brain development.

Early childhood is also the time in a child’s life when he or she will acquire the foundation of many skills needed for 21st-century jobs, including both cognitive and character skills. High-quality ECE helps create and bolster these skills. That’s critical for anyone who has a vested interest in the workforce of tomorrow.

Research has shown the value of these programs time and time again, including higher rates of high-school graduation, better earnings, stronger math and language skills, fewer behavioral problems, and more. Studies from a diverse group of preschool programs, from Alabama to New Jersey to Illinois to Arkansas and beyond, have shown positive results of high-quality ECE.

Most recently, an MIT study revealed that Boston public preschool attendees were more likely to graduate from high school and enroll in college. The study also showed that there was a substantial impact on student behavior, including reduced school suspension and juvenile incarceration.

This latest example of evidence in favor of high-quality preschool is particularly notable because it was a randomized, long-term study, which is considered a “gold standard” in terms of research.

Yet, if we don’t act to recommit ourselves to public investments in high-quality ECE in the wake of the pandemic, the regression we experienced will shift from temporary to permanent. This is particularly true because federal COVID relief mitigated much of the state funding shortfall from last year—but those were one-time funds.

Without them, states that fail to reinvest in ECE face a potential funding “cliff.” And all of us will suffer: Thousands upon thousands of children who won’t have access to high-quality programs that can set the stage for a lifetime of achievement. Parents who watch as their children start behind their peers in kindergarten and may never catch up. Business leaders whose hiring pools will dry up as the years pass. Communities that deal with the repercussions of many more children not developing behavioral skills and impulse control in their earliest years.

All of this can be avoided through investments that will restore access to these programs to pre-pandemic levels – and then expand from there.

The future vitality of our economy and our nation depends on our willingness to invest in high-quality education for young children today.

Hugh Welsh is the General Counsel, Secretary & President of DSM North America and a member of ReadyNation

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