Other Voices

The early education equalizer: Fixing inequity in Fort Worth

A student prints his name with a big crayon in a pre-K class at The Children’s Place in Arlington.
A student prints his name with a big crayon in a pre-K class at The Children’s Place in Arlington. Special to the Star-Telegram

When you hear “civil rights,” you might think of Martin Luther King Jr. and others who fought against segregation and racial inequity.

Jim Crow laws of that era refer to codified rules to segregate and disenfranchise.

With those laws abolished and equality replacing segregation in statute, people might think that equality is afforded to all Americans.

However, significant gaps still exist between white people and those of color, and between the affluent and the poor.

The best way to fix these gaps?

Start early with quality early education and childcare.

This should be a key focus for equity in Texas.

Fort Worth’s inequities are clear:

▪ Black and Latino children are nearly four times more likely than white children to live in poverty.

▪ The unemployment rate for black college graduates is 8.2 percent compared to white college graduates at 4.6 percent.

▪ White workers are more likely than black and Latino workers to make above $45,000 a year.

Plenty of programs — like mentoring, drop-out prevention, and workforce training — try to change these outcomes for minority children. While they are good programs, this is a bandage trying to fix problems that could have been thwarted more than a decade earlier.

Many human behaviors contributing to high school drop-out, incarceration, divorce, and unemployment come from skills learned (or not learned) much earlier.

Do you know when you developed many of your current behaviors? Think of the ones that really count day in and day out: impulse control, dealing with daily stress, relationship building, teamwork, patience, tenacity, flexibility, etc.

The foundation for these behaviors develops before you are even 3 years old. It starts during infancy.

Children develop more than 1 million neural connections per second during their first few years of life. This builds the foundation upon which all future learning will occur.

These connections are heavily influenced by the child’s caregivers and environment.

Parental education and income levels strongly impact their child’s early experiences and school-readiness. Disparities in vocabulary appear as early as 18 months; the gaps are stark between children whose parents have high education and income versus low education and income.

Due to centuries of economic instability and cultural stress, children of color are more likely to be poor and less likely to be school-ready. This puts generations of minority children at a disadvantage that can last a lifetime.

Our best chance of closing these gaps is to provide high-quality care and education for all children starting when their brains develop quickest and their parents need it most — infancy.

Currently, middle- and upper-class families can afford childcare. However, less than 9 percent of Tarrant County childcare providers are certified quality through a state certification — and even fewer are quality through national accreditations.

For vulnerable families, the Texas Workforce Commission (TWC) offers childcare at a discounted rate.

But only about 16 percent of childcare providers in this system across the state are meeting quality standards.

Parents must demand quality childcare by looking for what matters — quality certifications, low child-teacher ratios, quality teacher-child interactions, robust training for teachers, and more.

In addition, the state must value early care and education programs as much or more as K-12 programs.

Public pre-K is funded at half the rate of Kindergarten, and childcare through TWC is funded at even less. And the vast majority of these programs are not meeting quality standards.

Business leaders must be clear about our city’s needs.

Businesses relying on skilled labor will have to import workers from other states that invest in education.

By 2020, two-thirds of jobs in the U.S. will require a degree higher than a high school diploma, but only 33 percent of Texas adults age 18 and over currently meet these standards — and white adults are more likely than Black or Hispanic adults to have degrees beyond high school.

The disparities between the affluent and low income, and children of color and white children, are going to erode our economy and society. The brain science is real, and the racial gap is growing.

This inequality may no longer be codified in law, but it is as clear as the words on this page.

We must work together to fix it, and we must fix it now.

Bob Sanborn is the President and CEO of Children at Risk, a Texas-based advocacy and research group, and is editor of the Journal of Applied Research on Children. Shay Everitt is head of Early Education efforts for Children at Risk.