President Obama's pledge to work with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America has electrified California's educational community. With scientific studies finding that 90 percent of a child's brain develops by age 5, it's clearly time to act on what we know to be true -- that children's capacity to learn begins well before they walk into their first day of kindergarten.
But preschool is just one component in a comprehensive system of early childhood care that the president proposed. In concert with his State of the Union speech, Obama's White House policy team announced "a series of new investments that will establish a continuum of high-quality early learning for a child -- beginning at birth and continuing to age 5."
First 5 Alameda County enthusiastically endorses this plan and calls on Gov. Jerry Brown to accept the president's offer to kick-start it in our state. He will need all the help he can find to get this immense, important -- and expensive -- task off the ground.
President Obama's comprehensive early childhood plan starts right where it should -- in the home. Stress in infancy caused by chronic abuse, neglect or conflict can literally hard-wire a child for a lifetime of struggle and should be mitigated at all costs.
The voluntary home visiting programs endorsed by the president will enable nurses, social workers and other professionals to connect families to services and educational supports that will facilitate a safe and healthy birth as well as improve a child's development and ability to learn. Similar home visiting projects in Alameda County have shown that a child has a significantly better chance of success in school and in life if born healthy to loving and emotionally engaged parents.
The president also made a commitment to quality child care by announcing a new Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership program to support states and communities that meet the highest standards of quality care for children from birth through age 3. A willingness to support California's most vulnerable young children by providing well-equipped learning environments and low ratios of children to qualified educators could mean the difference between starting kindergarten already behind or actively ready to learn.
Early detection of social and emotional concerns in children, and links to specific interventions once problems are identified, are also essential to setting children on the right developmental track. While not formally a part of the president's proposals, California and other states need to establish a comprehensive system of developmental screening in pediatric, early care and education and community settings to identify delays while they can still be effectively addressed.
And finally, there's the president's historic endorsement of universal preschool. "Children who attend these programs are more likely to do well in school, find good jobs and succeed in their careers than those who don't," President Obama stated. "So let's do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind."
Establishing this kind of comprehensive system of early childhood care in California is going to be expensive to establish and maintain. But employing a formula used by the president himself -- "Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on" -- California stands to reap much more in long-term benefits. The state's corrections budget now exceeds $10 billion a year (more than a 1,300 percent increase from 1980), and what do we have to show for that?
The long-term economic payoff for early childhood investment seems tailor-made for a tightfisted visionary like Jerry Brown. We urge him to accept the president's offer and begin building this system of quality early learning programs today. In addition to physical infrastructure like high-speed trains and billion dollar canals, building this critical foundation for the lasting health, happiness and success of California's children could be an even more important legacy for the governor to leave our state.
Mark Friedman is CEO of First 5 Alameda County, a public entity established by 1998 passage of Proposition 10. First 5 works to create optimal conditions for children 0-5 to thrive in school and life.