President Obama vaulted early-childhood learning to the top of the education agenda in his State of the Union address earlier this year. The details of the plan are complicated but, in its broadest terms, his proposal provides incentives for states to create or expand high-quality birth-to- age 5 programs.

In graduate school, I interned at the Comprehensive Health Investment Project (CHIP) of Virginia. CHIP promotes wellness and self-sufficiency in low-income families through home visits. One of the key elements of the program is helping families living in poverty connect to health services and early education opportunities. I worked on the policy side, bringing families into the State House to talk to legislators about the impact early education services had on their children. These visits were powerful and definitely made legislators take notice, especially when they were presented with statistics that showed that families in CHIP were over 50% more likely to be engaging in early education opportunities compared to their non-CHIP enrolled peers. To state legislators, early education meant less remedial costs down the road in catching children up and eventually a better prepared, tax-paying workforce.

Studies show that children develop the mental, physical, and psychological competencies in their early years that will determine their future potential. Unfortunately however, more than 16 million children in the United States – 22% of all children – live in families with incomes below the federal poverty level. We spend a lot of time on this blog discussing the achievement and opportunity gaps that plague our schools due to wealth disparities, but we know that the reality is these gaps between students from concentrated areas of poverty and their more wealthy peers often begins even before they start school. Students from less affluent neighborhoods are less likely to have access to the same early opportunities which often means they begin kindergarten at a disadvantage and struggle to catch up. They disproportionately lack the reading and speaking skills needed to progress through kindergarten and beyond.

This coalition is focused on expanding learning time in K-12 schools, particularly for students living in poverty. But early education is an issue of time as well – it’s about expanding the time children are exposed to lessons in literacy and early mathematics as well as structured playtime with other children learning how to share and interact with their peers.

Too often, our education system gets sectioned off – early education vs. K-12 vs. higher education. But the truth is that we will only serve those children in our neediest communities well when we give them all the time they need from their earliest years through college and beyond. We can’t assume students will arrive in kindergarten ready to learn nor can we assume the traditional school day will be enough to prepare students for life in today’s 21st century economy. We need more time in school for engaging learning opportunities — both early in life and then throughout ones educational career.

President Obama had it right when he called for expanding access for early education. But I’m hoping that’s just the start of the conversation.