Pre-Kindergarten is at the forefront of concerns over education efficacy today, focusing on early education and care that occurs when a child is 4-5 years old. The U.S. House and Senate is currently debating some 35 bills drafted regarding Universal Pre-K (UPK), but closer to home, Fort Worth ISD is already implementing UPK, now mid-way through a 3-year roll-out.

Early education for 4 and 5 year olds is important, as is every learning and development year that comes afterward. However, the conversation regarding UPK is missing one important point: early childhood education begins years earlier. We know that 85% of brain development occurs by age 3, establishing the essential foundation that supports a thriving human being. In the first three years of life, this intensive time of brain development depends on positive, consistent experiences that enable a person to build and maintain effective relationships, solve problems, and mediate the world effectively. In every important year after the third year of life, then, we build from this amazing neurological development.

The economic impact of a focus on these years—or lack thereof—has been well documented by Dr. James Heckman, a Nobel Prize winning economist out of the University of Chicago. From this work, as well as others, we learn that the return on investment during the early childhood years is between 7-10% (higher when the focus is on 0-3 years).  No other time in our lives rivals the intense time of brain development and learning that occurs in the first three years. And yet, in terms of educational development and learning, we continue to devote our resources and our conversations to everything that occurs in the years that follow.

Children will be more successful if they arrive at school brain-ready, regardless of when their schooling begins—first grade, kindergarten, or Pre-K. Conversely, children who arrive significantly behind in their development are likely to struggle throughout their educational careers, regardless of how good their Pre-K program was. We need to give due respect, consideration, and resources to those first three years (0-3). It is not only in the best interest of our children, but also those of our families and our community.

We need local funding decisions to be based on these crucial years. We need to advocate for local funding, currently distributed through the Workforce Boards and into our CCMS subsidy system, to give special consideration to ensuring the success of the 0-3 age group. We also need to ensure that other families, those who do not receive subsidies, can afford quality 0-3 care.

Zero to Three, a well-known and well-respected advocacy organization has recently issued a policy agenda that suggests, in part, the following:

  • “Stop the erosion of funding that supports early development by removing the sequester and raising limits on domestic spending in the future. In real dollars, federal funding for early learning is the same as it was 10 years ago. . .
  • Help parents and families support their children’s early development: Create a federal Paid Family Leave program to give hardworking parents time-off­ to spend time with their newborns or newly adopted children. . . .
  • Expand comprehensive early development and learning opportunities . . . Increase funding for high-quality infant-toddler child care through significant increases in mandatory child care funds and the designation of funds in any Pre-K funding stream to ensure families have access to care that supports their babies’ development and incentivize states to raise quality. . .
  • Emphasize positive social and emotional development in young children by increasing access and quality of Infant-Early Childhood Mental Health (IECMH) services by: increasing the supply of IECMH professionals; preventing, identifying, and treating maternal depression; expanding Medicaid reimbursement for relationship-based mental health services; and increasing the capacity for mental health training and consultation within early care and learning programs.”

Access the full document at the Zero-to-Three website

These first three years must be part of all of our conversations about the importance of early childhood education. We need to support quality early experiences—from the beginning. Even though 90% of brain development occurs by age 5, we invest only 5% of our public education dollars in early education—and most of it is on Pre-K programs for 4 and 5 year olds. Of course, it’s not enough for Pre-K, but we invest even less in the years that make Pre-K succeed—the time in our lives when we are developing, growing, and learning faster than we ever will again.



Lyn Lucas is the Chief Program Officer at Camp Fire First Texas. Her specialties include working with children in both the non-profit and for-profit sectors, managing school-age programs and NAEYC-accredited early childhood education programs. Lyn holds a Master of Education in curriculum studies and serves on the Texas Youth and Child Care Worker Association board.