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Arizona Opinion

AZ Schools Supt. Kathy Hoffman: Why Biden's universal pre-K plan is a huge deal

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The following is the opinion and analysis of the writer:

Back in March, Democrats in Congress passed President Joe Biden’s American Rescue Plan, and in doing so provided the funds to safely reopen our schools and to support more than 100,000 Arizona children living in poverty. This crucial piece of legislation also allowed the state agency I oversee — the Arizona Department of Education — to deliver crucial resources to public-school students and communities all across Arizona.

Biden understands that investing in our children is the surest way to build a better tomorrow. Now, with the introduction of his American Families Plan, I am thrilled to see him continue the work of the American Rescue Plan and double down on his commitment to investing in our children and families where we need it most: education.

The most transformational aspect of the president’s new proposal is his call to offer universal, high-quality preschool to all 179,000 Arizona 3- and 4-year-olds.

Many of you know that I am a licensed speech therapist, but I began my career in the classroom as a preschool teacher in Tucson. Any educator will tell you that the impact of high-quality early education on a student’s life cannot be overstated — and that it’s easy to tell which of our students had access to preschool, and which did not. Studies show children who attend a universal pre-K program reap the benefits as late as the eighth grade and continuously outperform their peers in reading and math.

Unfortunately, here in Arizona, our Legislature has failed to even fund all-day kindergarten, let alone preschool of any kind. Communities are lucky if there is a federal Head Start program available to them, but many Arizona children, disproportionately low-income children and children of color, do not have access to preschool at all.

Currently, only 16% of 3- and 4-year-olds in our state are enrolled in publicly funded preschool. This means that the majority of kids are starting kindergarten already behind their peers through no fault of their own.

Moments of crisis expose the ways in which our country has underinvested and underprepared. As we begin to see the end of the pandemic, we have the opportunity to learn from the lessons of the last year and choose to fill the gaps we know exist, and make investments in our country’s long-term success.

There’s a reason why so many in the business community support investments in high-quality early education. For decades, research has shown the ROI on early learning: for every dollar we invest, we see anywhere from $4 to $16 in return.

Some studies estimate that the benefits of a universal preschool system will boost the U.S. GDP by more than three times our initial investment — showing us just how deeply our country’s economic success is tied to our willingness to invest in our youngest learners.

Finally, the American Family Plan would lift a burden off of hardworking families struggling to right themselves from the economic fallout of COVID-19. Offering every child access to free, high-quality and inclusive preschool is estimated to save each family an average of $13,000. This will level the playing field and give every Arizona child the opportunity to succeed inside and outside the classroom.

Public education has the potential to open doors for students that they never thought were possible. The investments in preschool instruction proposed in Biden plan have the potential to seriously bolster our state’s public education system, paving the way for the best-educated generation of students in our state’s history. We have an obligation to give our kids the best possible chance for success — and that starts with Congress passing the American Families Plan.

Kathy Hoffman is Arizona’s superintendent of public instruction and has spent her entire career working in public education, first as a preschool teacher and then as a speech/language pathologist.

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