Investing in the Young: US Fails UNICEF Report Card

By Michael Watkins, County Superintendent of Schools

Since 2007, UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund) has conducted a study on the well being of children in the 29 most economically advanced countries in the world. Their report card is designed to monitor and compare the progress of these countries in securing the rights of their children. Each country’s overall rank is based on its average ranking in five areas: material well-being, health and safety, education, behaviors and risk, housing and environment.

To my dismay, and the dismay of others, the bottom four places are occupied by three of the poorest countries in the survey, Latvia, Lithuania and Romania, and by one of the richest, the United States. The failure to protect and promote the well-being of children is associated with a host of adverse later-life outcomes from impaired cognitive development, to lower levels of school achievement, and from reduced skills and expectations to lower productivity and higher rates of unemployment. This startling fact may account for our Country’s high incarceration rate and lower student achievement in the areas of science and math.

High Quality Early Learning

It is no accident that those countries that are at the top of the list in child well-being are also those countries at the top of the list in student achievement. The good news is that we don’t have to remain at the bottom, for one of the first things that the countries at the top of the well-being list do, is invest in their youngest citizens, preschoolers. And just because our Country and our State have failed to tackle this issue head-on doesn’t mean that we as a County should have to stand by idly and watch many of our young children enter school unprepared.

The development of human capital through high-quality early learning and K-12 education is becoming even more critical to the long-term vibrancy of communities as economic trends continue to reward individuals with skills and education.

Key city priorities such as economic development, public safety, civic engagement and the stability of families and neighborhoods all hinge on whether a child enters kindergarten ready to succeed. Within the past couple of years, Los Angeles County Sheriff Leroy Baca lobbied Washington for universal preschool stating, “Either you pay now for preschool or you’re going to pay a guy like me later.”

Making the Investment

There are a number of cities across this nation shaping their own destiny by investing in their young. The Mayor of San Antonio, Texas, for example, in partnership with the Superintendent of Schools, formed a task force comprised of public and private stakeholders, to identify resources to fund a citywide universal high-quality Pre-K Program for 4-year-olds. As a result of their efforts, in 2012 they placed a Pre-K-4 Initiative on the ballot and voters supported increasing their sales tax by one-eighth of a cent for that purpose.

Currently, city leaders in Hartford, Connecticut are prioritizing city resources to meet the goal of 100% access for all four-year-olds by 2019. San Francisco was the nation’s first jurisdiction to create a dedicated children’s fund and now Oakland, Seattle and Portland have all found ways to invest in quality early education. And in Richmond, California, a grassroots coalition fought to place a youth fund measure on the 2018 ballot to create a dedicated funding stream for children’s programs.

Thrive By Three

We as a county are now rethinking how we use and allocate resources for our most vulnerable children as evidenced by the recently approved Board of Supervisors’ “Thrive By Three” Initiative. One in four children in our county live in poverty.

The second highest expense of a family after housing is childcare. Supervisors Zach Friend and Ryan Coonerty said it best in promoting the “Thrive By Three” Initiative, “Our budgets are moral documents that reflect our community values. We now spend less than one half of one percent on our youngest children and when you consider the science of brain development, that simply is not adequate.”

As our cities and county governments begin to make child well-being a high priority in their budget processes, utilizing the Childhood Advisory Council’s Master Plan for Early Care and Education as a compass, and bringing early educators into the conversation, would lay the groundwork for giving every child a stronger start in school.

It’s not too late.

Published in the Aptos Times on September 5, 2017.