Opinion

Equality Often Missing as Early as Preschool

Bigotry in basketball draws attention, but there’s evidence discrimination also distorts young lives.

Attorney General Eric Holder (L) and Education Secretary Arne Duncan talk to preschoolers Dylan Hunt (2ndR) and Khalil Robinson (R) while they pretend to play doctors in their class at J.O. Wilson Elementry School. On March 21, 2014 in Washington, DC. President Obama has proposed expanding government-funded early childhood education.
National Journal
MaryLee Allen and Daniel Hains
May 13, 2014, 1 a.m.

In April, the U.S. Edu­ca­tion De­part­ment’s Of­fice for Civil Rights re­leased data for the first time ex­amin­ing the num­ber of young chil­dren sus­pen­ded from preschool pro­grams in pub­lic schools.

The data re­vealed a ser­i­ously troub­ling pat­tern in school dis­cip­line for young chil­dren dur­ing the 2011-12 school year.

Black chil­dren rep­res­en­ted only 18 per­cent of the na­tion’s preschool stu­dents in pub­lic schools in the 2011-12 school year but 42 per­cent of stu­dents sus­pen­ded once — and an even more shock­ing 48 per­cent of stu­dents sus­pen­ded more than once from preschool. In con­trast, white chil­dren rep­res­en­ted 43 per­cent of the preschool pop­u­la­tion and 26 per­cent of those sus­pen­ded one or more times.

These facts be­come more dis­turb­ing when viewed along­side the re­search of Wal­ter Gil­li­am, a Yale pro­fess­or of psy­cho­logy and the dir­ect­or of the Ed­ward Zi­gler Cen­ter in Child De­vel­op­ment and So­cial Policy. Gil­li­am’s 2005 study on preschool ex­pul­sions found that young black chil­dren were far more likely to be ex­pelled than oth­er ra­cial and eth­nic groups.

Gil­li­am’s study ex­amined a di­verse sample of preschool set­tings. He found that the pub­lic-school-based preschools and Head Start pro­grams it ex­amined had lower ex­pul­sion rates than those op­er­ated in­side faith-af­fil­i­ated cen­ters and for-profit child-care pro­grams, set­tings not in­cluded in the Edu­ca­tion De­part­ment’s Civil Rights Data Col­lec­tion re­port.

Both the Gil­li­am study and the Edu­ca­tion De­part­ment’s new data point to a ser­i­ous prob­lem: Young chil­dren, es­pe­cially young chil­dren of col­or, are be­ing re­moved from preschool set­tings and robbed of early op­por­tun­it­ies to learn.

Even worse, ra­cial dis­par­it­ies in preschool sus­pen­sions and ex­pul­sions seem to mim­ic a lar­ger trend throughout pub­lic schools. Dur­ing the 2011-12 school year, black chil­dren in grades K-12 were sus­pen­ded and ex­pelled from schools around the coun­try at a rate three times that of white chil­dren, ac­cord­ing to fed­er­al data.

The story here is not the num­bers them­selves but the mes­sage they con­vey about our lack of com­mit­ment to en­sur­ing a head start and a fair start for our young­est chil­dren. A small group of preschool pro­grams — only 6 per­cent of the na­tion’s school dis­tricts of­fer­ing preschool — re­por­ted sus­pend­ing any chil­dren. But any sus­pen­sion or ex­pul­sion of our young­est and most vul­ner­able chil­dren is un­ac­cept­able. When we sus­pend or ex­pel a child, we adults are say­ing to that child, “We can­not meet your needs. We give up on you.”

How can we give up on a young child be­fore he or she reaches kinder­garten?

Gil­li­am’s re­search shows that high teach­er-child ra­tios and teach­er stress — in­dic­at­ors of a low-qual­ity preschool pro­gram — are closely as­so­ci­ated with an el­ev­ated rate of stu­dent ex­pul­sions. Black chil­dren “ex­per­i­ence a ser­i­ous op­por­tun­ity gap in the form of lim­ited ac­cess to high-qual­ity early care and edu­ca­tion,” and are more likely to be placed in low-qual­ity care, ac­cord­ing to re­search re­leased in Novem­ber by the Na­tion­al In­sti­tute for Early Edu­ca­tion Re­search.

What re­search and data col­lec­tion on preschool sus­pen­sions and ex­pul­sions really re­veal is our fail­ure as adults to provide high qual­ity care for all of our chil­dren dur­ing their most cru­cial years of rap­id brain de­vel­op­ment. If our so­ci­ety has reached the point where it is deemed ac­cept­able to give up on 3- and 4-year-old chil­dren, we have in­deed fallen far from our na­tion­al creed of be­ing the “land of op­por­tun­ity.”

Mari­an Wright Edel­man, pres­id­ent of the Chil­dren’s De­fense Fund, of­ten quotes the great Ger­man theo­lo­gian Di­et­rich Bon­hoef­fer, who once said that the test of the mor­al­ity of a so­ci­ety is what it does for its chil­dren. CDF be­lieves that we are miser­ably fail­ing Bon­hoef­fer’s test.

We fail Bon­hoef­fer’s test every time we de­cide it is easi­er to pun­ish a 4-year-old rather than sup­port her.

We fail Bon­hoef­fer’s test when we place a lower value on the life of a black child than the life of a white child, al­low­ing black chil­dren to dis­pro­por­tion­ately at­tend low-qual­ity preschool pro­grams and face ex­clu­sion­ary dis­cip­line.

We fail Bon­hoef­fer’s test when we over­bur­den edu­cat­ors with too many preschool­ers in each class and when we fail to train and sup­port those who de­vote their lives to the care of our young­est chil­dren.

We fail Bon­hoef­fer’s test when we give up on a child’s fu­ture be­fore he can even tie his shoelaces.

However, it’s not too late for our preschool-age chil­dren, and it is not too late for us to build a found­a­tion for fu­ture suc­cess. We must fol­low the lead of the bi­par­tis­an group of gov­ernors and may­ors in states and cit­ies across the coun­try who are work­ing hard to make ac­cess to high qual­ity early-child­hood de­vel­op­ment and learn­ing a real­ity for all of their chil­dren. All chil­dren through age 5 need a high-qual­ity early-child­hood sys­tem with com­pre­hens­ive ser­vices and sup­ports so those most in need do not slip through the cracks.

As the wealth­i­est na­tion in the world, we must em­brace our mor­al re­spons­ib­il­ity to care for all of our chil­dren. It is the right thing to do and the smart thing to do. The fu­ture of the na­tion de­pends on it.

MaryLee Al­len is act­ing policy dir­ect­or and Daniel Hains is an early-child­hood policy as­sist­ant at the Chil­dren’s De­fense Fund. 

HAVE AN OPIN­ION ON POLICY AND CHAN­GING DEMO­GRAPH­ICS? The Next Amer­ica wel­comes op-ed pieces that ex­plore the polit­ic­al, eco­nom­ic, and so­cial ef­fects of the pro­found ra­cial and cul­tur­al changes fa­cing our na­tion, par­tic­u­larly rel­ev­ant to edu­ca­tion, eco­nomy, the work­force, and health. Email Jan­ell Ross at jross@na­tion­al­journ­al.com. Please fol­low us on Twit­ter and Face­book.

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