- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 29, 2003

The recent Supreme Court rulings on affirmative action continue the debate about the government’s role in promoting racial equality and economic opportunity. Nonetheless, focusing on higher educational institutions as the forum to foster these goals may be misplaced. Americans understand that higher education, while important, is less fundamental than early childhood years in shaping future economic and professional success.

That is one of the important findings of both the most recent edition of the American Survey (conducted nationwide June 9-11 among 600 registered voters, margin of error plus/minus 4.0 percent; sponsored in part by the United Way and their Success By 6 program) and the May edition of the same survey. For example, a quarter think that early childhood education is most important for society. That is almost as much as elementary education (32 percent); high school (29 percent), and it dwarfs college (11 percent).

Even more telling, in June’s survey 83 percent agreed that devoting more resources to children under the age of 6 helped avoid more expensive social costs (like those associated with remedial education, welfare and even the criminal system) later on in life.

The Jesuits used to say, “Show me the boy at 7 years of age, and I will show you the man.” This crisply describes the notion that most of our intellectual, emotional and mental patterns are set very early in life. This understanding has been corroded a bit lately, but happily has never been completely discarded. In the June survey, almost 80 percent of respondents indicated that the years before 10 (and especially the years from birth to 5) are the most important with respect to the mental, emotional and physical development of people.

Despite this sentiment, we continue as a society largely to ignore early childhood education and lavish dollars on the college and post-graduate world. This is because of the still imperfect understanding of the importance of the preschool years to development. Again, our survey asked which time in a person’s life contributed the most to the economic strength and educational success of our nation. This time, almost half (49 percent) picked the K-12 grades. Just a little more than a quarter (28 percent) indicated the preschool years (birth to 6 years old). This suggests to us that more education is needed about the importance of constructing a sturdy intellectual and emotional foundation in the pre-school years.

Finally, we think people recognize that the stakes are high. Even in this environment, rich with concern about terrorism and its possible effects, almost two-thirds of the respondents (64 percent) said that the social problems related to our lack of investment in the needs of children pose more of a threat than such hostile attacks. That is striking. It suggests that those who talk about the urgent importance of preschool education will have more than just the Jesuits on their side. It also suggests that despite all the attention paid to the Supreme Court, people understand that the real matters of concern to the nation are wrestled with everyday by moms and dads trying to raise their children as best they can.

These truths have been understood for a long time. In the 11th century, when Henry II ruled much of modern England, his courtiers would say that the realm depended on him. Henry would remind them that in his kingdom there was a town, and in the town there was a street, and on the street there was a house. In the house was a cradle with a child in it. And on that child, Henry would say, all else depends.

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