New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently wrote that the single most important thing we can do is to “occupy the classroom.” Kristof is up to something big here. And it’s actually pretty simple: We must enable all kids to have access to a high-quality early childhood education.
This need is acute given that evidence of significant cognitive and health disparities related to family income becomes apparent within the first year of life — a gap that widens when some parents cannot afford to send their kids to preschool. The federal program, Head Start, has been addressing this problem for nearly 50 years but it consistently lacks the funds it needs to achieve universal access.
Kristof’s suggestion that the government should substantially increase its commitment to this program is wishful thinking. It matters little that the Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman has shown that investments in early childhood education pay for themselves over time. The mood in Washington these days is, after all, hostile to new social spending. So while Kristof is clever to point out that “the question isn’t whether we can afford early childhood education, but whether we can afford not to provide it,” enhanced support will need to come from somewhere else than from the government.
This is where all of us have a role to play. The nonprofit agencies that run Head Start programs get their money almost entirely from the feds, and these agencies lack the ability to do much to change this. That is because they do not have the resources to fundraise extensively. Although we rarely get mailings asking for donations, these organizations nonetheless need our help. There are nearly 2900 of them around the United States carrying out Head Start programs. In doing research for the book I am writing, I have recently learned about two in Eastern Massachusetts, Action for Boston Community Development (ABCD) and Quincy Community Action Programs. Supporting any of these organizations would be a significant way for each of us to begin to occupy the classroom.