As we enter a new year, the two things that Memphis and Shelby County governments spend the most money on dramatically illustrate the choices before us as a community.

They are education and criminal justice.

Education and crime – they are polar opposites in the outcomes we want as a community, but serve as a reminder that we can pay now for education or pay more later for arrests, prosecutions, and incarcerations.

There is no debate that investment in education is the smarter choice, but over the years, education has been too narrowly defined, usually referring to the formal schooling that begins with kindergarten. More and more, however, we have made progress in advancing early childhood education to the point that a growing consensus now calls for a Pre-K-12 system.

That is clearly progress, and we should take the time to celebrate it. But there is so much more to be done, chiefly in increasing our attention as a community to the first three years of our children’s lives, when their brains are growing at an astonishing rate and the cornerstones are laid for social and emotional development.

Pre-K Prepares Kids to Clear the Hurdles

Early childhood is perhaps the most critical phase in human development. Beginning at birth and continuing through infancy, relationships in a nurturing environment can set in motion positive development that continues into preschool and early elementary school. Because we know that the first three years are a time of rapid physical, emotional, social and cognitive growth, early childhood offers the greatest opportunities for positive development – but also the most risk.

Negative influences – inconsistent parenting, tumultuous living conditions, domestic abuse, and the toxic stress associated with extreme poverty – can have effects on children’s development that are irreversible, and often they are evident on a child’s first day in school. As Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said, it is no coincidence that only 30% of students are prepared for kindergarten, and that the percentage of third graders proficient in literacy and seventh graders proficient in math are the same: 30%.

In “The Importance of PreK: A Teacher’s Perspective”, posted on the teacher-centric Bluff City Education blog, a teacher relates how the odds are stacked academically against children who have not had “access to resources needed to develop a solid foundation to be successful learners.” She says that as a result, too many children cannot express themselves, they cannot follow instructions, and cannot interact positively with their classmates. She also says that these children tend to fall farther and farther behind. The main factor in whether or not a child is prepared to learn, she believes, is whether he has attended a quality pre-K program.

Children don’t have the luxury of choosing the families they are born into, the neighborhoods where they are reared, or the policies and programs that affect them. And yet each of these has a crucial role to play in determining their futures. Children born into fragile families face an uphill battle: research shows that persistent stress and instability drains parents’ emotional resources and can translate into ineffective or harsh parenting, with negative effects on children’s social and emotional development.

Crossing Party Lines for Early Childhood

Unfortunately, poverty-related stress remains a widespread threat to the healthy development of our community’s children. Between 1970 and 2010, the number of high-poverty census tracts in Memphis increased from 42 to 78, and today, almost one of every two children (45.7%) in Memphis lives in poverty.

Our mandate for the new year is clear: Improving early childhood well-being means strengthening education and decreasing poverty. The good news is that this is an issue that crosses all partisan lines. Already, the Obama White House has set early education as a top priority, Governor Haslam’s administration has applied for federal funding to expand Pre-K in public schools in Memphis and Nashville, and Mayor Wharton has launched the Blueprint for Prosperity. The Blueprint has a goal of reducing Memphis poverty by 10 percentage points in 10 years and focuses on providing resources and interventions for children living in concentrated poverty.

We are optimistic about the progress that can be made in the coming year. Although voters have twice rejected plans to fund universal Pre-K, there is renewed momentum to push for other strategies. These include tougher certification standards for day care centers (so they function more like Pre-K providers), teacher training that will allow more challenging academic material to be introduced effectively at younger ages, and improvements in the local administration of Head Start now that it has moved to Shelby County Schools.

Education Weaves Community Interests Together

Barbara Prescott, director of the PeopleFirst Partnership, summed up the Partnership’s overall goal: It is to provide services that are more “focused on children reaching kindergarten with the pre-literary and pre-numeracy skills that would set them up for success.”

As we begin 2015, our shared wish as a community is that we will improve outcomes for our youngest children. Ultimately, if we achieve this, we are also improving outcomes for Memphis and Shelby County as a whole.

The thread that runs through all we do is education: early education for our young children, parent education to foster positive parenting and strong home environments, professional education to improve childcare quality, and community education to increase public awareness of how social and emotional development is as important as cognitive development.

This was previously published as the Perceptions commentary by The Urban Child Institute.  To sign up for the Institute’s emails, click here.