Both the Gilliam study and the Education Department's new data point to a serious problem: Young children, especially young children of color, are being removed from preschool settings and robbed of early opportunities to learn.
Even worse, racial disparities in preschool suspensions and expulsions seem to mimic a larger trend throughout public schools. During the 2011-12 school year, black children in grades K-12 were suspended and expelled from schools around the country at a rate three times that of white children, according to federal data.
The story here is not the numbers themselves but the message they convey about our lack of commitment to ensuring a head start and a fair start for our youngest children. A small group of preschool programs — only 6 percent of the nation's school districts offering preschool — reported suspending any children. But any suspension or expulsion of our youngest and most vulnerable children is unacceptable. When we suspend or expel a child, we adults are saying to that child, "We cannot meet your needs. We give up on you."
How can we give up on a young child before he or she reaches kindergarten?
Gilliam's research shows that high teacher-child ratios and teacher stress — indicators of a low-quality preschool program — are closely associated with an elevated rate of student expulsions. Black children "experience a serious opportunity gap in the form of limited access to high-quality early care and education," and are more likely to be placed in low-quality care, according to research released in November by the National Institute for Early Education Research.
What research and data collection on preschool suspensions and expulsions really reveal is our failure as adults to provide high quality care for all of our children during their most crucial years of rapid brain development. If our society has reached the point where it is deemed acceptable to give up on 3- and 4-year-old children, we have indeed fallen far from our national creed of being the "land of opportunity."
Marian Wright Edelman, president of the Children's Defense Fund, often quotes the great German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who once said that the test of the morality of a society is what it does for its children. CDF believes that we are miserably failing Bonhoeffer's test.
We fail Bonhoeffer's test every time we decide it is easier to punish a 4-year-old rather than support her.
We fail Bonhoeffer's test when we place a lower value on the life of a black child than the life of a white child, allowing black children to disproportionately attend low-quality preschool programs and face exclusionary discipline.
We fail Bonhoeffer's test when we overburden educators with too many preschoolers in each class and when we fail to train and support those who devote their lives to the care of our youngest children.