Children of poverty are disadvantaged from the moment they are conceived. From medical attention to nutrition to a multitude of environmental factors, an achievement gap exists long before these children ever set foot in a classroom. The educational system did not create the achievement gap. Unfortunately, for low-income students, the gap is going to widen if opportunities aren’t available to help close it.

Mounting evidence suggests that investing in pre-school programs provides the highest return on the education dollar. President Obama’s early childhood education plan is commendable. As the President says, “Studies show students grow up more likely to read and do math at grade level, graduate high school, hold a job, form more established families of their own” when exposed to a high-quality early learning program. Education is a proven way to break out of the vicious cycle of poverty. What we’re seeing, however, are significant reductions in funding for pre-school programs at the state and federal levels. Sequestration alone has cut more than $400 million from Head Start, and there is little hope that Congress will move to adopt the President’s early childhood proposal.

We at AASA have long been proponents of the education of the total child, meaning for students in poverty, the need to consider factors extraneous to the classroom. There are many nonprofit groups, community agencies, and corporate partners anxious and willing to assist schools with the education of the total child. I happen to sit on the boards of two such organizations, America’s Promise and Communities in Schools.

America’s Promise has forged an alliance of more than 400 partner organizations representing policy makers, the business community, nonprofits, and local community leaders, all anxious to assist our schools. Communities in Schools is one of the largest and most successful dropout prevention programs working with schools to provide the wraparound programs that enable low-income students to succeed.

It’s time to acknowledge that poverty is the biggest culprit hindering our ability to provide the best education for our students. It’s time we focus on funding equity, early childhood education, and providing the wraparound programs that will allow low-income students to get a high-quality education. Only then will we break the pernicious cycle of poverty.

Daniel A. Domenech is executive director of the American Association of School Administrators.