Let us erase education inequality

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  • The coronavirus pandemic has exposed our failures and drawn attention to who could slide into in harm’s way, at best— low income families and people of different color, caste or ethnicity. The same is true in education. We can change this reality by making sure every child has the strong and fair start, which they need and deserve, beginning in the all-important first five years of life.

  • Perhaps what we are doing today for our children isn’t working. As each country prepares to rebuild from this pandemic, leadership must seize the opportunity to build a strong, fully integrated and effective early-learning system to enable this land to become the best place in the planet to raise a family, to prepare our future work force and to erase the systemic failures that have created a scourge of inequity.

By Nazarul Islam

Guess what—it took a deadly coronavirus pandemic to shatter our feelings of invincibility! It has exposed our deep divide, which separate us — inequities in education, economic opportunity, criminal justice and public health. In the United States, this raw and searing reality is evident in millions of low-wage workers today, who have lost their jobs and the disparate impact coronavirus has had on our Black and Hispanic neighbors.

It has laid bare whoever we are, in the light of our systemic failures—to prepare us, and be ready for it, with clear warnings that such a pandemic was highly likely to occur. Should we be surprised at our systemic failures? They are evident—and present, all around us.

Take the threat of climate change. Our response has been piecemeal and inadequate….

Take poverty. We have designed multiple programs to eliminate poverty, spent billions, yet inter-generational poverty persists, and families wanting help must navigate a confusing labyrinth that most of us would give up on, very quickly…

Take public health. The pandemic has exposed huge gaps, and we remain way behind every other industrialized country in access to health care…

Take the tax policy. We have failed to modernize our country’s tax structure. The result is the most regressive, inadequate, and unfair system in the country, where our poorest families pay a far higher percentage — nearly 18% — of their household income in taxes than do our wealthiest families, who only pay about 3%….Long live our policy makers!

Nowhere are our systemic failures more damaging and longer lasting than in the education of our children, where inequity simply has raged on. Until we solve our well-documented education inequities, we will continue to perpetuate a society where many children are kept out, pushed aside and held back. This is as truer in America as in Pakistan or Colombia.

The good news is that a very promising solution—and a proven solution, is ours for the taking. We have known from nearly half a century of academic research that high-quality, early learning opportunities in child care and preschool for 3– and 4-year-old children can change a child’s life outcomes — better education attainment, better health, higher earning power as an adult, less criminal justice system involvement.

Yet, regardless of the country we live in, rich or poor, the system only invests less than 0.5 per cent of our nation’s budget in early learning and child access to preschool services, placing us near the bottom among the countries which believe in knowledge based economy.

Researchers at the University of Chicago have documented that ensuring high-quality early learning is the most important and best investment we can make for our children and our society. Last year, these same researchers documented that these investments can eliminate inter-generational poverty.

Yet, we in the countries of the subcontinent make the level of investment that’s required.

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed our failures and drawn attention to who could slide into in harm’s way, at best— low income families and people of different color, caste or ethnicity. The same is true in education. We can change this reality by making sure every child has the strong and fair start, which they need and deserve, beginning in the all-important first five years of life.

As we prepare for recovery from this pandemic, let’s also resolve to erase education inequity and inter-generational poverty by adopting three proven solutions:

First, a strong system of high-quality child care for infants and toddlers, so no parent is held back from working or continuing their education.

A growing number of working parents in the poor nations have reported they have quit a job or school because they couldn’t find or afford child care. As an interdependent society — something the pandemic has vividly reinforced — we should subsidize quality child care and make it affordable so working families don’t pay more than 7% of their household income on child care.

Businesses need this convenience too, in order to ensure a reliable and capable workforce.

Second, universal, yet voluntary, high-quality preschool for our 3– and 4-year-olds, free for everyone, just like our Kindergarten to Higher Secondary learning system. As the research shows, investing early in our children will reap huge benefits for all of us. In the United States—Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Oklahoma, Vermont, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C., recognize these benefits and take steps to provide universal preschool.

We must also adequately compensate the educators and staff providing child care and preschool—commensurate with the vitally important child outcomes they are working to achieve.

Third, strong supports need to be geared towards young families with children who need an extra hand. Income based family support programs improve pregnancy outcomes, improve child and parent health, and begin to expose young children to a broad vocabulary and a love of reading.

With these three solutions, we follow the evidence of what works best. The cost should be viewed as an investment in the common good.

This work is urgent. Almost one-half of America’s 5-year-old children enter their kindergarten classroom already behind on six age-specific measures of preparedness to learn — social-emotional, physical, cognitive, language, literacy and mathematics. For children of color, it is closer to 60% who start behind.

Children who start behind very often remain behind, and we see the results later in high school dropout rates, criminal justice involvement and the inability to remain employed as adults.

Many of these outcomes can be traced to a child’s first five years, when 90% of brain development occurs.

These efforts will require a significant investment of public investment, if undertaken anywhere on the planet but the cost of the status quo is far greater. In Bangladesh, We could raise the necessary dollars — about a quarter billion per year — by adopting a new progressive, dedicated tax that would help turn our upside-down tax structure right side up.

One option is a capital-gains tax, as many countries have, done—on the profits from the sale of corporate stocks, bonds and other financial assets. There may well be other revenue options to consider.

Perhaps what we are doing today for our children isn’t working. As each country prepares to rebuild from this pandemic, leadership must seize the opportunity to build a strong, fully integrated and effective early-learning system to enable this land to become the best place in the planet to raise a family, to prepare our future work force and to erase the systemic failures that have created a scourge of inequity.

(The Bengal-born writer is a senior educationist and lives in USA. He writes regularly for Sindh Courier and the newspapers of Bangladesh, India and America)

 

 

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