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Investment in early childhood learning paying off

Mayor Rahm Emanuel answers questions from mediinside classroom ChopElementary school first day school after strike ended Chicago Sept. 19 2012.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel answers questions from the media inside a classroom at Chopin Elementary school on the first day of school after the strike ended in Chicago on Sept. 19, 2012. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times.

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Updated: May 14, 2013 6:11AM

The debate about early childhood education in Washington and Springfield is often defined by a false choice. The question is not whether to invest in the critical, early years of a child’s education, but how we invest in the highest-quality options.

While early learning programs across the nation are facing cuts based on tough budget decisions, nearly 45,000 young children in Chicago are beginning to see the benefits of the $36 million investment we are making in high-quality early learning. We are not simply providing more options; we are providing higher-quality opportunities for children and better tools for parents to be partners in their child’s education from the very beginning.

These investments follow my mission of transforming early childhood education and the findings of the early learning task-force I established during my first months in office. For the first time, we are ensuring that funding is strategically allocated across the city in a way that benefits the most children.

As a result of our comprehensive review, we are making investments in 724 schools and community-based partners that provide high-quality early learning options. This additional commitment in early childhood education complements our effort to provide universal kindergarten for every child for the first time. We will ensure that our students are ready to succeed on the first day of first grade.

We are also adding more opportunities for early childhood education where they are needed most. For too long, children in certain parts of Chicago have been cheated out of the resources they need to succeed in the classroom. That is why we are not only investing in stronger neighborhood schools throughout the city, but also in programs for toddlers from Austin to Woodlawn. We are providing 2,000 more children with access to the nationally renowned Child Parent Center Model Classrooms and 200 more seats to serve students with special needs. Next fall we will also open an early learning center in Englewood to provide wraparound support for 370 more children. Through collaboration between community partners, DFSS and CPS, the center will provide literacy support, nutrition workshops, referrals to social services and more. These investments at Englewood and at service centers throughout the city allow us to provide programs that benefit our children today and in future years. Through engaging parents in the essential early years of a child’s education, we can encourage stronger partnerships from parents throughout their education. A comprehensive study that tracked thousands of Chicago students through early adulthood found that children beginning at age 3 who participated in high-quality early childhood programs showed higher levels of educational attainment, socioeconomic status, job skills, and health insurance coverage as well as lower rates of substance abuse, felony arrest, and incarceration than those who received the standard early childhood services.

Chicago’s success helps to demonstrate the value of investments in high-quality early childhood education that President Barack Obama touted in his State of the Union address. “Every dollar we invest in high-quality education can save more than seven dollars later on by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime.”

Whether it is studies from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in more than a dozen countries that show how early childhood education is an essential equalizer for children from low-income or second language groups, or recent findings in neuroscience that demonstrate that the brain develops far earlier than once believed, the results are clear. In spite of the mountain of evidence to support the value of investment in a child’s critical early years, a false debate endures in Washington and Springfield over their importance and priority. By waiting for them to find a compromise, we compromise the future of our children. That is something I will not accept and our children cannot afford.

Rahm Emanuel is mayor of Chicago.

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