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States should invest in preschool

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Millions of middle-class and wealthy American parents assume preschool to be an important part of their 3- and 4-year-old children's lives, but that's far from the reality of this nation's working poor. At a time when the diversity of languages, educational backgrounds, and economic status among families is rapidly widening in almost every state in the nation, a massive expansion of affordable preschool is ever more essential yet still far from being realized in too many states.

One of every 4 children under age 6 in the United States today is a child of immigrants, an extraordinary increase from just a decade ago. More than half of these children are from poor families, according to a recent report from the Urban Institute. These are exactly the families and children who can benefit most from strong early-education programs.

Preschools and prekindergartens that develop the skills, imaginations, and social and emotional capacities of 3- and 4-year-olds can transform children's lives, especially when the schools include social services and education for parents, such as classes on child development, literacy, or English as a second language. The cognitive and emotional benefits, mapped out in a landmark collection of studies published by the National Research Council and the Academy of Medicine five years ago, have been even more fully documented in the years since. With rapid cognitive growth occurring in a child's first five years, it is the prime time to lay the foundations for healthy and productive lives.

While these findings are valid for all children, the results are especially powerful for children from families that don't speak English at home, who are more likely to have a low income, or whose parents haven't had much formal education.

Children from poor families who take part in strong early-education programs are much less likely to need special education services or to be held back as they get older. They are far more likely than their peers to graduate from high school, stay out of trouble with the criminal justice system, and ultimately have better economic futures. In a study of the universal prekindergarten program in Tulsa, Okla., Hispanic children showed especially impressive gains on language and other skills that led to stronger reading in primary school.

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