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Guest Opinion: Early education pays dividends

“We shouldn’t be pointing fingers; we should be offering helping hands.” That was New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s theme when I heard him speak this month at The Oregon Community Foundation's annual meeting in Portland.

Kristof was there to educate, support and inspire everyone to do better in our efforts to give all Oregon children the opportunity to succeed in school and, ultimately, in life. Although we have many accomplishments as a state and as a city, our performance in areas of educational outcomes for Oregon communities is often below our aspirations.

At OCF, these are issues we tackle with grant programs targeted at education, parenting, children’s dental health and the economic strength of communities. The foundation has developed strategies to address many of these issues with a variety of partners in the government, nonprofit and public sectors, and the support of our donors.

We focus on early childhood education because that’s where we can make the biggest impact. But that doesn’t just mean kids — it means parents, too. The adults in the lives of young children deeply influence the eventual success and health of those children when they grow up.

Brain architecture, which is 90 percent complete by age six, is literally shaped by children’s earliest relationships and experiences. By age 3, children with college-educated parents or primary caregivers have vocabularies two to three times greater than those whose parents did not complete high school. A child of professionals hears 30 million more words by age 4 than a child on public assistance. By the time they start school, the children who have limited exposure to vocabulary are already behind their peers. Many will never catch up.

At OCF, we are growing increasingly concerned that this opportunity gap for children and youth is not only not closing — it is widening. The implications of that widening gap are alarming. We know that effective parenting and early childhood reading and vocabulary have a huge impact on whether or not a child is ready for kindergarten — and that readiness affects the ability to succeed later in life.

But social equity issues are not the only ones at play here. There are also economic issues. Economists who have looked at the cost-benefit equation say that there is no question that dollars spent in the early years pay off many times over. We can save anywhere from $3 to $17 for every $1 invested in early childhood programs because of lower costs for remedial education, lower crime and incarceration costs and higher productivity over a life time. The kids who participate early need less help later, as adults. They earn more, pay more taxes, commit fewer crimes. They’re better citizens.

The bottom line: Kids are a worthwhile public investment. Oregon is poised to play an important role in the early childhood education discussion. And there is significant bipartisan agreement around universal pre-K. In 2015, the Oregon Legislature enacted House Bill 3380, the creation of a new, publicly funded, high-quality preschool system.

The system, referred to as Preschool Promise, leverages high‐quality, local and culturally relevant early child care and education programs, allowing families living at 200 percent of the poverty level to access and choose the preschool program that best meets their needs. The program is built around the existing “Early Learning Hubs” implemented through the state’s Early Learning Division. This is a significant milestone for the state. We need to safeguard it.

Without question, we need to provide equal access at the starting line, and kindergarten is too late. The stakes are enormous. The opportunity gap must be closed. Rarely have we known so much about how to make things better and done so little. It is ultimately only by closing what Nicholas Kristof calls our “collective effort gap” that Oregon can — and will — be better than it is today. And by not pointing fingers, but by offering helping hands.

Ashland resident Heidi Binder is donor relations officer at the Southern Oregon office of The Oregon Community Foundation in Medford.