Opportunity is an American value. This value drives so much of our thinking about the best way to move our country forward. It certainly influences how we think about our education system and our public schools. After all, the whole point of having a public school system is to give everyone the opportunity to succeed.

Here in California, we still have a long way to go to promote opportunity for all children. But recently, the Legislature's budget proposal for early education put us one major step closer to realizing that ideal.

With their introduction of a state budget that provides increased access to early childhood education, state legislators took steps to give every kid a fair start.

In the Senate, legislators proposed providing access for 234,000 low-income 4-year-olds to high-quality preschool. And this plan doesn't simply focus on 4-year-old kids. It recognizes the importance of the earliest years and the kind of learning that happens in care programs, as it also increases access for low-income children from birth to age 3. And in the Assembly, lawmakers proposed a major expansion of early education as well, an expansion that would give 47,000 kids a chance to attend quality preschool and care programs.

Why does this matter and what does it have to do with opportunity?


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It matters because kids' brains grow most rapidly in the first five years of life. During this time, children first learn how to talk and express their thoughts and feelings. The more words they hear and the more conversations they have with adults, the larger their vocabularies become and the more they develop cognitively.

This is also when kids start to interact socially and learn how to use their words to get along and resolve problems. Cognitive, social, and pre-reading skills form the foundation for future learning.

Kids who have access to quality early education develop these skills at a quicker pace, which means they are better prepared for kindergarten and future grades to come.

As a result, children who benefit from early learning are also more likely to graduate from high school and be employed later in life. Those who don't, start out behind -- and lose out on opportunity.

Sadly, that's happening across the state. California serves only half of eligible preschool-age children in state preschool or Head Start, and only 6 percent of the state's most vulnerable infants and toddlers receive the quality care and support they need. And this is simply because California hasn't made the investment needed to fix these problems.

If opportunity indeed is an American value, then it follows that we need to give every child a chance to succeed in life.

We can't guarantee that every child will succeed. But we should guarantee that every child has the opportunity to succeed.

With its historic proposals, the state Legislature took steps to give every kid a fair start -- and an opportunity to succeed in life. When a final budget proposal reaches Gov. Jerry Brown's desk, he should embrace this very American value.

Jason Pfeifle is state director of the California Fair Share Oakland. Rosie Switzer is governing board president of the Benicia Unified School District.