The Wise Penny

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By: J. Glenn Hopkins, President/CEO

Virginia just released its 2016 School Readiness Report Card. The report contains some good news and some not-so-good news.

The good news is that third grade achievement and high school completion rates improved across the Commonwealth during the decade between 2005 and 2014.  The not-so-good news is that the achievement gap remains glaring between poor minority children and their more affluent non-minority peers.  In third grade reading, for example, 13 percent of white children failed the state reading test compared to 31 percent of poor children and 39 percent of black children.

Third-grade reading proficiency is a reliable predictor of later school and life outcomes. Research has shown that children who aren’t reading proficiently by the end of third grade are more likely not to complete high school than their peers -- this is particularly true for poor and minority children.  Failing to complete high school leads to higher rates of unemployment, incarceration, and single motherhood.

With these facts in hand, and with concern for our children and our community, we need to act wisely and promptly in addressing these achievement gaps.  Early intervention is a key starting point in helping to reduce learning gaps between poor and minority children and their more affluient, nonminority peers.

While Virginia deserves credit for spending nearly $71 million this year on pre-k programs for at-risk four-year-olds, this spending misses the mark. By focusing only on 4-year olds, this substantial investment of tax-payer dollars may be too little, too late. 

Researchers point out that gaps in language proficiency between economically disadvantaged and advantaged children emerge long before they turn 4 years old. Pre-k programs focused on 4-year olds may be valuable for some children but not necessarily for poor and minority children.

An alternate, more equitable intervention strategy would be to invest in high-quality early care and education programs beginning at birth. Investing in such programs is a wise investment of tax-payer dollars, not only because such investments help level the field for poor and minority children but also because they increase the likelihood of substantial positive returns -- economic and social -- later down the road. 
The wise penny says: Investing wisely in our children today will pay for generations to come.     


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