The excitement from early learning advocates about President Biden’s American Families Plan is tangible, and understandably so — the targeted investments to expand access to universal pre-K for all three- and four-year-olds in the plan are long overdue. The inequities that our nation’s youngest learners have endured for decades show that our success in seizing this opportunity will depend on getting serious about race-conscious policymaking.

Families of young children of color, who face systemic racism in housing, health, and education systems, subsequently have low access to high-quality, state-funded preschool programs — and have faced these stressors long before the pandemic. For years, research has shown that high-quality preschool is associated with lifelong social-emotional, academic, and economic success, and that it has an excellent return on investment for the economy. Additionally, the cost of early learning programs can take up to 116% of a low-income family’s annual household income, and Black and Latino families spend almost 15% of their monthly income on childcare. Research, as well as recent heartbreaking news stories show that young learners of color face biased, harmful, and ineffective disciplinary practices leading to the disproportionate suspension and expulsion of Black children from early learning programs. And the population of young children of color who potentially face these inequities continues to increase; for example, by 2060, Latino children will comprise 32% of the nation’s preschool-age population.

If the Biden administration and Congress make universal pre-K a reality, it will not only be a landmark moment for our nation’s children and families, but it will accelerate the nation’s economic recovery. And with the pandemic disproportionately affecting job loss for Black and Latino families, universal pre-K can even more powerfully, and equitably, lift up young children of color and their families — if the programs are high-quality. Here are key requirements for states:

To ensure equity-focused design and implementation, states should be required to do the following to access federal funding for universal pre-K:

  • Prioritize expansion of existing pre-K programs in the areas of highest need, including in areas with high populations of children of color, across a variety of early learning settings. Priority enrollment must go to students of color, students from families with low incomes, children with disabilities, dual language learners, children living in foster care, and children from families experiencing homelessness
  • Include children with and without disabilities together whenever possible in learning settings
    Collect and publish data that allows us to measure and monitor equity in state pre-K programs

To ensure support for culturally competent early learning educators, states should be required to do the following to access federal funding for universal pre-K:

  • Provide state preschool educators, including assistant teachers and paraeducators, with at least full compensation parity with K-3 counterparts in their district
  • Treat multilingualism as an asset to invest in by providing dual language immersion preschool programs and prioritizing access to them for dual language learners
  • In defining and measuring “high-quality,” do so in ways informed by early childhood professionals of color and multilingual early childhood professionals in the state and supported by culturally and linguistically competent research
  • Provide ongoing, culturally and linguistically competent professional development for all professionals in teaching roles, including assistant teachers and paraeducators.
  • Include topics such as evidence-based strategies for supporting positive behaviors, developmentally appropriate practice, child development (including social-emotional development), screening and progress monitoring for students with disabilities, supporting language-rich environments, supporting dual language learners, and collaborating with families
  • Prohibit the use of corporal punishment, seclusion, suspension, and expulsion, and provide ongoing professional development on eliminating racial bias and using developmentally appropriate practices

To ensure equity in access, states should be required to do the following to access federal funding for universal pre-K:

  • Provide practical schedules for working families, including full-day programming and hours aligned with alternative work schedules
  • Make enrollment easy by providing quick, accessible application processes through multiple modes in multiple languages, with no information solicited regarding citizenship status or immigration status

While universal pre-K may seem like a relatively new concept, the U.S. has come close twice before. In World War II, many more women were needed in the workforce, so the government provided heavily subsidized, high-quality early learning centers across the country through the Lanham Act, which ended with the war. In 1971, Congress passed a huge early learning investment that was ultimately vetoed. Preschool programs of decades ago purported to be for all, but in practice were often unequal, far from equitable, and designed and implemented in ways that denied access to many parents of color. Now, we finally have an opportunity to provide universal preschool in ways that truly support racial equity.

For me, when not on a Zoom call, I’ve spent much of the past year knocking on wood that my toddler would continue to be cared for by a healthy relative while I worked, and that he could keep his spot in a nearby preschool program once attendance was possible. I am among the most privileged, and most lucky, yet worrying about my ability to access high-quality early care and learning for my child is still a daily stressor.

By upending work and home life, the COVID-19 pandemic has shown millions of families how difficult it is to provide high-quality care and education to their own children and to work without access to childcare. Rarely does a global event hit home so hard that it shakes us to the precipice of transformative policy change for young kids and families. And yet, hopefully, that’s exactly where we are now, with the inclusion of targeted investments to expand access to universal pre-K for all three- and four-year-olds in the American Families Plan.

It should not have taken a pandemic to realize that every young child deserves a strong, fair start to high-quality education as their brain goes through its most formative period. But now that we’re here, we can’t miss this moment. This time around, there is a mountain of brain science, economic and education research, and a national call for racial justice that can make this shot at universal pre-K a particularly powerful force to give all our young learners a strong start — especially children who face the most injustices. Our ability to build a stronger future depends on it.