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We need to invest more in rural kids' early years

I was pleased to read Andrew Yarrow's op-ed highlighting the need for Maryland to invest more in early childhood education (“Early childhood care undervalued in Md.,” Nov. 12).

Recently, the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity confirmed the economic and health benefits of investing in the early years, especially for the most marginalized youngsters. As director of the commission, I advocate for this investment globally but lament that my home of Western Maryland has yet to reap the benefits that other countries and parts of the U. S. have achieved.

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Amazingly, 90 percent of the brain develops before the age of 5. Given that, it is striking that Maryland invests 10 times more in education after high school than it does in the early years when a child's life is shaped.

These critical years determine much of kids’ future trajectories and must receive the same level of priority as higher education. Mr. Yarrow's article points out that preschool trends in Maryland are lagging, but we must remember the impacts of this neglect are greatest in the forgotten rural areas. Places with the most to gain from investment in the early years, like my home of Allegany County, lose out the most in the long-term when no one thinks it is a priority.

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The three westernmost counties rank in the bottom half of our state's health outcomes. Child care costs for the average parents are about 20 percent of their annual income. And in Allegany County alone, more than one in five children live in poverty with upwards of 50 percent qualifying for free and reduced meals in school.

A stone's throw away across the river from my hometown of Cumberland, the state of West Virginia enrolls 25 percent more of its young people in preschool by the age of 4 than we do in Maryland.

If we're serious about turning around rural economies and improving health outcomes, we need to invest early and in the most marginalized regions of our state. The evidence shows this will be the biggest bang for our buck, which begs the question: Why doesn’t Annapolis prioritize the youngest citizens in the state’s rural areas?

Justin W. van Fleet, Cumberland

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The writer is director of the International Commission on Financing Global Education Opportunity and chief adviser to the global children's charity Theirworld.

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