Skip to site content

Churches Can Make Positive Impact on Early Childhood Education

My son was not quite 3 weeks old when my wife and I toured a local Montessori school in search of a pre-K program for him.

We reserved a spot in the school beginning October 2016 before he was a month old. Why so early?

We want him to have access to quality pre-K education that prepares him for primary school and provides significant social interaction with his peers.

This is not a replacement for or abdication of our parental role. It is an important supplement to our efforts to help him succeed in school and, ultimately, in a career following his formal education.

Two full-time, well-paying jobs make this possible and should provide positive benefits both now and throughout our son’s lifetime.

Sadly this is not a possibility for every family, a problematic reality of which I was reminded by an Associated Press (AP) report on disparities in affordable pre-K education.

On one extreme, four states enrolled 75 percent of its 4-year-olds in government-funded pre-K programming in 2014, AP reported.

On the other side, 11 states enrolled fewer than 10 percent and 10 states have no publicly funded programs.

Steven Barnett of the National Institute for Early Education Research predicted, “It will be another 75 years before state pre-K enrolls even all kids in low-income families.”

Why is this significant? Can’t children who did not attend a quality pre-K program (homeschooling or otherwise) “catch up” once they are enrolled in primary school?

Simply: no.

A 2013 report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation revisited research conducted in 2011 and confirmed that poverty and limited early education opportunities often result in lower reading proficiency and graduation rates.

According to the report, “82 percent of fourth-graders from low-income families – and 84 percent of low-income students who attend high-poverty schools – failed to reach the ‘proficient’ level in reading.”

In addition, “children who do not read proficiently by the end of third grade are four times more likely to leave school without a diploma than proficient readers” and “children who cannot read proficiently and are poor for at least one year is 26 percent, or more than six times the rate for all proficient readers.”

Numerous studies have demonstrated that access to early childhood education programs results in higher test scores and graduation rates, increased likelihood of college enrollment, higher income jobs and lower crime rates.

Children living in poverty are generally behind peers who live above the poverty line, making it more likely that they will not complete high school or college.

In short, poverty tends to beget poverty when there is not access to early educational opportunities.

A majority of public school students now come from impoverished families, making the challenge all the more pressing.

When touring the pre-K school in which we plan to enroll our son, we observed the benefits of access to early education and the inability of students to “catch up” if they do not have such opportunities.

My wife – a special education teacher at a public Title I middle school (majority low-income students) – commented that most of the pre-K students we observed were working at the same level as her students, while a few surpassed the work her students could accomplish.

President Obama called for universal pre-K education in his 2013 State of the Union address, and the White House hosted an early education summit in 2014.

Many state governors highlighted the need for early education improvement and increased funding in their 2014 State of the State addresses.

Yet the national budget is continually delayed due to partisan bickering, which impacts education funding proposals.

While government support is vital, the flagging political process highlights the need for local churches to intervene.

Providing tutoring and mentoring at all levels – especially to students in third grade and under – is an important approach.

Thankfully, many churches are already doing so, as a May 2014 EthicsDaily.com series on social capital and the local church revealed.

For example, Second Baptist Church of Little Rock, Arkansas, has partnered with a local elementary school to provide reading support to students in kindergarten through third grade.

By the end of the first year, “40 percent of the children had caught up to their grade level and graduated out of the program.”

Hopefully, the success of the Second Baptist program will inspire more congregations to establish similar partnerships.

Churches with pre-K programs could re-envision these ministries by moving from a play-eat-nap daycare model focused largely on congregation members (usually with an outreach component to attract new members) to a pre-K education program open to anyone in the community, with special consideration for families in poverty.

Improving educational opportunities at all levels, especially increasing access to affordable pre-K programs, is essential to a vibrant future for the U.S.

It is also a moral imperative that congregations and people of faith must recognize and respond to.

A biblical text specifically about early childhood education doesn’t come to mind, but the prophetic tradition prioritizing care for “the least of these” is certainly applicable.

The intimate connection between deficient early education and poverty places this subject well within the scope of this prophetic exhortation.

The national conversations about wealth inequality and the gap between minimum wage and living wage also factor into this conversation, and the Bible has an abundance of relevant statements on such matters.

Government action is needed, so urging political representatives to fund universal early childhood education is important.

Yet churches can make an immediate, substantive contribution to the common good without waiting for Washington gridlock to end.

Zach Dawes is the managing editor for EthicsDaily.com. You can follow him on Twitter @ZachDawes_Jr.