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Invest in future with universal preschool

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Early education has seen a surge of interest among politicians in the past year. At the federal level, President Barack Obama devoted parts of his past two State of the Union speeches to advocate for universal preschool. At the state level, legislative leaders have called for expanding the state’s transitional kindergarten program to serve all 4-year-olds. Locally, Mayor Ed Lee has stepped up and championed San Francisco’s own successful Preschool for All program.

During the Great Recession, early education took its lumps, especially at the state level, where California slashed funding for programs by more than $1 billion. Now that the economic sun is starting to shine again, a conversation about early education is exactly what we should be having now at all levels of government. There is simply no better time to make an investment in our youngest children that can pay dividends for decades to come.

The United States continues to fall behind on almost every element of early education. According to the international Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, our country is 25th among 36 developed countries in preschool participation among 4-year-olds.

In contrast, the U.S. ranks in the top 10 on spending for penitentiaries and on inmates. In California, we spend $5,000 a year to educate a preschooler, compared to $50,000 a year to house an inmate. In the past 30 years, California has built 20 new prisons, and over the next five years the prison population is projected to increase by 16 percent. But a growing number of us, including Police Chief Greg Suhr and District Attorney George Gascón, believe the amount spent on incarceration, as well as the steep number of inmates, can be reduced by expanding access to high-quality preschool.

Research on the benefits of early education is overwhelmingly positive. It is a rare type of bipartisan initiative that continues to unite both sides rather than divide, and while it is not a silver bullet, early education programs have real and tangible effects on reducing crime, inequality and poverty.

In San Francisco, thanks to Preschool for All, we have seen some of the highest rates of preschool attendance in the nation — 83 percent of The City’s 4-year-olds attend preschool, compared to 74 percent nationwide. Children in San Francisco’s Preschool for All program have a three- to four-month advantage in early literacy and math and big gains in self-regulation skills. Over time, these gains translate into high school graduation, college attendance and greater economic productivity.

Ten years ago, the voters of San Francisco chose wisely to invest in universal preschool by approving Proposition H and establishing the Public Education Enrichment Fund. There is ample evidence that The City’s 10-year investment has paid off in the form of greater opportunity for children to attend high-quality preschools and better-prepared kindergartners.

This fall, San Francisco voters will be asked to renew their commitment as Preschool for All returns to the ballot box. Let’s hope that San Francisco can once again lead the way, and that California and the U.S. follow suit.

Laurel Kloomok is executive director of First 5 San Francisco Children and Families Commission.

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