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Staff file photo by Erin O. Smith / Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke visits the classroom of Delrika Worbington, Tameria Fowler and Tiffany Riddle at Champion Christian Learning Academy in April of 2019. Berke and city officials were celebrating city efforts to increase the number and quality of preschool seats across Chattanooga.

What's the best insurance policy for our city's growth? Any city's growth? Any county's growth? Any state's or country's growth? Answer: An infrastructure plan that turns babies and toddlers into voracious learning machines. In short, early childhood education — also known as universal preschool.

We mention "insurance policy" because economists say that for every $1 we put into quality early learning, we get $7.30 back in benefits, including increased wages, improved health and reduced crime.

And we call it an "infrastructure plan" because what possible building initiative is more important to any community's future than its children — children who become that community's residents, workers and parents when they grow up.

Research has shown us that a child's brain achieves 80% of its growth by age 3, and 90% of its development by age 5. But we grownups have to turn on the switch. Sadly many of us just don't really know how.

That's why the $1.8 trillion American Families plan proposed by President Joe Biden can help better prepare more children to succeed in school by giving their families more economic support and by supporting programs to expand and improve early childhood education.

To be supported by higher corporate tax rates, Biden's plan calls for a historic $200 billion investment for universal preschool programs. In effect, the plan grants two years of free prekindergarten to all American families. Additionally, all employees in participating pre-K programs and Head Start would earn at least $15 per hour, and investments in tuition-free community college and teacher scholarships would be expanded to support those who wish to earn a bachelor's degree or another credential that supports their work to become an early childhood educator.

Naturally, the usual suspects are offering nonsensical Republican criticism, even here in our own community where the need has been demonstrated by glum school statistics.

Just five years ago, only a fraction of youngsters in Hamilton County were enrolled in an early learning program (even today only one in four is) and that small number had reverberations all the way up our student's public school careers and work opportunities: Only 40% of children were assessed as kindergarten-ready, only 36% of our third-graders were reading at grade level, only about 37% of our high school students were assessed as college and career ready, only about 40% of our graduates obtained post-secondary credentials, and 44% of Hamilton County jobs were going to out-of-county workers.

Our 3rd District U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann called the price tag for Biden's plans "bloated" and said the plans are not focused enough on "traditional infrastructure" like building or repairing roads, bridges and airports. Please. The American Jobs plan has the bridges focus. Since when has education not been a foundation of building our communities?

But more importantly, Fleischmann is out-of-touch with his constituents. A recent public opinion survey by Global Strategies Group found 3rd District voters favor Biden's jobs and infrastructure plan by a 48-44% plurality, and even more like his preschool idea: Among the respondents, 62% said "offering free, high-quality preschool to all 3- and 4-year-old children" is a priority, and 59% said "providing nationwide access to paid medical and family leave" is a priority.

Republican U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn is even more out-of-touch. In April she called the proposal for universal preschool "anti family" by pushing more young children into government-controlled schools. Offering to help families educate their children is anti-family? And, oh horrors — government-controlled schools! Marsha, can you say "public" schools?

Smart thinkers know that Biden's preschool initiative is targeted at one of the nation's biggest educational needs and offers a rich payback potential to boost educational and economic achievement for more Americans.

"Children's most formative years are before they even hit kindergarten," says Edna Varner, teacher, principal, administrator and senior adviser to Chattanooga's Public Education Foundation. "Brain development is happening at the maximum capacity, and yet we do not have a system that is robust enough to support that in a quality way."

Our children's education begins and ends with reading, and youngsters who are read to from birth begin school with 7,000 words in their vocabularies. Children who are not read to start with about 500 words, according to studies.

Tragically, when the children of working parents and children of adults who themselves may have a hard time reading don't get this early learning attention, they begin pre-K, kindergarten and first grade with too few words in their vocabularies. Their learning muscles are weak, and they begin at a disadvantage. As their school days continue, they fall more and more behind. If they can't read at grade level by third grade, they may never catch up as that is the point in schooling when youngsters must read on their own to do lessons, do homework and continue learning.

It is ludicrous for anyone to say that children and education are not important pillars in our nation's infrastructure. It's time we all come together to support this and make it clear to naysayers like Fleischmann and Blackburn.

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