Report card: Are the roots of Nevada education healthy?

Nevada’s D grade in the early-childhood education index of the latest Education Week Quality Counts report is not about academic performance.

Nevada got another D, ranking 49th in the early-childhood education index of the latest Education Week Quality Counts report on American schooling. But the grade shouldn’t spark our usual sigh of despair, for one because our country scored a D+, and because these metrics are not about academic performance.

The index looked at enrollment in preschool and kindergarten, and how it’s affected by the poverty gap. While Nevada is dead last for the number of 3- and 4-year-olds in preschool and Head Start programs, it’s also No. 8 for gains observed between 2008 and 2013, and No. 17 for progress made in closing the gap. “The fact that we are seeing improvements in Nevada is what we should be focusing on,” says Amanda Haboush-Deloye, senior research associate with UNLV’s Nevada Institute for Children’s Research and Policy. With three federal grants recently awarded to Nevada that will give early-childhood education a much-needed infusion, she’s excited about the possibilities.

She’s also realistic about the infrastructure needs. Kindergarten is not mandatory in Nevada, and less than half of our elementary schools offer the full-day program (and even those schools don’t have the capacity to cover all eligible kids). Preschool rates are lower, and Haboush-Deloye says that while some parents choose to teach their young children at home, others are dealing with costs that can be prohibitive and a lack of quality—or any—options in some cases.

Why should we care? Prevention, Haboush-Deloye says, explaining that some problems kids are having much farther down the line in the K-12 system can be traced back to weak foundations. “If you want to make an investment, that’s where you make it.”

Taxpayers who feel such an investment doesn’t benefit them should think of the ripple effect, says Jeff Gelfer, a professor in UNLV’s Department of Educational & Clinical Studies who’s been working to advance early-childhood education here for 26 years. “We’ve found that the most critical years in a child’s development are the first eight years. That’s when they learn the most,” he says, explaining that brain development is not just about colors, numbers and language. It’s about social skills, emotional stability and intellectual capability. “The more money you put in education,” Gelfer asserts, “the more money your economy will gain.”

Whatever the benefits of early-childhood education, Nevada parents still have the choice to enroll their kids. Haboush-Deloye stresses that efforts to expand the landscape are about making sure all children have access to quality programs. The rest is up to them.

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