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A Level Playing Field, an Equal Starting Line


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Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Legislative Summit, March 19, 2013

I'm delighted to see this legislative summit's concentration on education as the linchpin of prosperity and the economic game-changer for Hispanics.

Hispanic parents sometimes say to their children: "An education can’t be taken away from you." As we all know, many things can be taken from us. But knowledge and education are the gifts that keep on giving.

That understanding, and this conference, reflects the reality that in today's knowledge-based, globally competitive economy, a world-class education and some postsecondary schooling is essential. As President Obama said when he spoke here four years ago, "Education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity and success, it's a prerequisite for success."

And so I’m happy to say I have some good news to report today on the state of Hispanic educational progress in the U.S.—good news that has not received enough attention to date.

During the Administration's first term, Hispanic high school graduation rates rose substantially--and so did Hispanic enrollment in college.

It's true that many urgent educational challenges persist in the Latino community, including high dropout rates in both high school and college. Yet we don’t do enough in the field of education to celebrate progress.

So today, I want to talk first about educational progress in the Hispanic community and challenges that remain. And then I want to talk about legislative opportunities to strengthen education--especially President Obama’s landmark plan to provide universal, high-quality preschool to all four-year olds in America.

One of the most encouraging improvements in our education system today is the rapidly rising high school graduation rates and college enrollment rates of Hispanic students.

From June 2008 to June 2011, the on-time graduation rate of Hispanic high school students jumped more than 10 percentage points. In 2008, less than two-thirds of Hispanic students graduated on time from high school. Today, about three in four Hispanic high school students graduate with their class.

Because the graduation rate of Latino students rose from 2008 to 2011, an additional 164,000 Latino students graduated on time. That is 164,000 people with a better chance of getting a good job, owning their own home, and supporting a family.

And all across America, Hispanic families and communities are building a stronger college-going culture. From 2008 to 2011, the number of Hispanics in college jumped by almost 25 percent, from 2.3 million to more than 2.8 million. That’s a remarkable step in the right direction.

More than a half-a-million additional Hispanic students—about 550,000 in all—are now enrolled in college today than were enrolled in 2008. That is 550,000 more people who are getting their shot at the American Dream and the opportunity to thrive in a globally competitive world.

It is even more impressive that many of those students are the first in their families to go to college. They know that a college education can’t be taken away.

It will come as no surprise that I believe America's economic success is inextricably linked with the success of the Hispanic community, our nation's largest minority group.

Fortunately, the next generation of Latino college students is poised to be leaders, too. They are poised to help lead our country and their communities into the future.

Cesar Chavez said that "real education should consist of drawing the goodness and the best out of our own students." And I have great faith that Latino college students will not only thrive in the job market but will strengthen our civic life and help make America a more perfect union.

That's one reason why President Obama and I are so excited about the dramatic increase in Hispanic college enrollment during his first term in office. We expanded the Pell Grant scholarship program by more than 50 percent, with the number of Pell Grant recipients going from 6.2 million in 2008 to more than nine million three years later.

As part of that expansion, we estimate that more than 725,000 additional Hispanic students will receive Pell grants by the 2013-14 school year. And over the next decade, we are slated to invest one billion dollars in American's Hispanic Serving Institutions.

Yet this is no time to rest on our laurels. I believe we can and must grow Hispanic enrollment in college further by passing the federal Dream Act.

I am a passionate supporter of the Dream Act. So is President Obama. To me, passing the Dream Act is an absolute no-brainer. It would be a triumph of common sense, and a win at multiple levels for our nation. It is good to see emerging bipartisan support for immigration reform in the Senate.

This is not an abstract issue for me. When I was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, about 40 percent of the students in the city’s public schools were Hispanic and some students were undocumented.

I saw firsthand how students who had done nothing wrong—and everything right—were denied their chance for equal opportunity and the chance to pursue the American Dream.

I feel strongly enough about this that my wife and I made a modest contribution to fighting this unfairness by providing scholarship support for several students in the CPS system, some of whom were undocumented. One student worked 40 hours a week at a gas station while he went to the University of Illinois full-time.

Now, as we press ahead for speedy enactment of the Dream Act, we also have to be honest about urgent educational challenges that lie ahead.

While college enrollment is soaring, too many Hispanic students need remedial education when they arrive at college and too many are dropping out of college before they get their degree or certificate.

Sixty percent of white students at four-year colleges get their degrees in six years. But less than half of Hispanics—48 percent-- at four-year schools get their degree in six years.

This troubling shortage of Hispanic students marching across the stage on graduation day has its roots right at the beginning of the education pipeline.

Hispanic children represent the largest group of young, minority children in the nation. But, unfortunately, they are less likely than any other major ethnic group to be enrolled in center-based, early learning programs.

Just 20 percent of Hispanic three- to five-year olds were enrolled in full-day preschool in 2010. Close to 60 percent of Hispanic children nationwide were not enrolled in any kind of preschool program.

And counter to the national trend, there is no evidence that the participation of Hispanic children in preschool programs has increased since 2003.

When you fall behind at the starting line, it is hard to catch up and get to the educational finish line for that college degree at the same time as everybody else. We have to stop playing catch-up.

So, we need to work at both ends of the educational pipeline--to expand access to affordable, high-quality preschool and to boost college completion rates.

I never forget that the Hispanic community has so many great strengths to draw upon to meet these challenges. A strong work ethic. A deep religious faith. And a powerful commitment to family.

Yet there are times when some of these very strengths do not help students persist to get a college degree. When young Latino males drop out high school to take jobs to support their family, they are ultimately limiting their potential.

I know it is hard to take the long view when times are tough, but we must help our teenagers understand that the best way to help their families over the long haul is to get that college degree.

When working parents keep their kids at home to babysit younger siblings because the parents can't find an affordable preschool nearby, those young children can lose out on opportunities for academic, social, and emotional development.

So, in the time I have left, I'd like to talk for a few minutes about President Obama’s early learning plan.

As I said earlier, the President's plan is really a landmark proposal. It would provide the largest expansion of educational opportunity in America in the Twenty-First century.

Parents who hunger for affordable, high-quality early learning programs, teachers who work tirelessly to provide our children with opportunities, and business leaders who seek well-prepared workers all want to see the President’s vision recognized.

The biggest beneficiaries of all would be our children--particularly disadvantaged children, English language learners, and children with disabilities.

Dramatically expanding high-quality early learning is a classic win-win proposition. It would make America more productive, more competitive, and save untold millions in taxpayer dollars.

We know that America can't win the race for the future by cheating children at the starting line. And it’s past time that we get our public schools out of the catch-up business.

The President's plan would launch a new Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership program and expand the Administration’s evidence-based home visiting initiative.

And it would create a new, groundbreaking federal-state partnership to enable states to provide universal, high-quality preschool for four-year olds from low- and moderate-income families, up to 200 percent of the poverty line.

This new partnership would also provide incentives for states to cover all families who want to send their children to high-quality preschool.

But it would not be a new federal entitlement program—it would be an investment in states to jumpstart access to high-quality preschool and to take the leading states to the next level.

States would use federal funds from our Department to create or expand high-quality, state-run preschool programs, administered in partnerships with local school-based and community providers.

The urgent need for greater access to high-quality preschool for children from low- and moderate-income families is not really in dispute today. Just ask a parent or kindergarten teacher if there are gaps in learning and social and emotional development when a child walks through that kindergarten door.

We know that, on average, children from low-income families start kindergarten 12 to 14 months behind their peers in language development and pre-reading.

And we know that fewer than 30 percent of four-year olds today—less than three in ten--are enrolled in high-quality preschool programs.

Our theory of action in expanding high-quality preschool is going to be the same as it was in the first term. The federal role in public education is to support and partner with states, incentivize innovation, and help identify what works to strengthen education and accelerate achievement.

That means that at the federal level, we should be tight on ends but loose on means. The Department should set a high bar. But it should leave it up to state and local leaders to choose the best means for reaching that bar.

States would be required to meet quality benchmarks linked to better outcomes for children--like having high-quality state-level standards for early learning; qualified and well-compensated teachers in all preschool classrooms; and a plan to implement comprehensive assessment and data systems.

Unlike the norm today, preschool programs would have well-supported teachers paid comparably to K-12 staff, low adult-to-child ratios, and offer effective, developmentally-appropriate learning opportunities.

Now, some critics have expressed skepticism about the President's plan. They have raised questions about its costs, complained of government overreach, and argued that the impact of high-quality preschool programs cannot be taken to scale.

Some of their questions are the right ones to be asking--and some are false choices. Let's start with costs.

The President pledged in his State of the Union that the administration's investments in building the workforce and strengthening the middle class would not add a dime to the deficit. And we will abide by that pledge when the President releases his budget.

But in an era of tight budgets, it's absolutely fair that we ask ourselves, what is the smartest use of our education dollars?

The answer, I believe, is that high-quality early learning is the best educational investment we can make in our children, our communities, and our country.

As President Obama has said, "if you are looking for a good bang for your educational buck," high-quality preschool is the place to look.

The best early-learning programs provide life-transforming opportunities for children. In the near-term, high-quality preschool reduces placements in special education. It reduces grade retention. It boosts graduation rates.

And in the long-term, high-quality preschool both increases the odds of holding a job and decreases crime and teen pregnancy.

Rigorous, longitudinal studies of both the Perry Preschool Project and the Chicago Child Parent Centers have projected a return of seven dollars to every one dollar of public investment in high-quality preschool programs.

And I might add that studies of Tulsa, Oklahoma's well-regarded preschool program, of Head Start, and a new study of Boston's preschool program find that Hispanic children are especially likely to show cognitive improvement in preschool programs.

So I would turn the critics' skepticism around and ask, how can we afford not to invest more heavily in high-quality preschool?

In the end, the right question to ask is, how do we help build quality in preschool programs? We know that not all preschool programs are created equal. Many programs are life-changing. But some offer little more than baby-sitting.

Federal oversight can be relatively simple here if we stick to those two core principles: Set a high bar, and set quality benchmarks linked to better health, social, and cognitive outcomes for children.

Everyone can agree that the goal of dramatically expanding high-quality preschool is a challenging assignment. Yet the difficulty of broadly scaling-up quality cannot become an excuse for maintaining the status quo of uneven quality and unacceptable gaps in access, especially in the neighborhoods that need the best opportunities, not the fewest opportunities.

This is no time to let the perfect become the enemy of the good, as so often happens in education debates.

What gives me faith that this challenge can be met? Mine is not some vague hope in the unseen, but a confidence that comes from the real leadership I already see across the country. I am encouraged by the fact that expanding quality preschool programs is currently being embraced by both Democratic and Republican leaders at the state and local level.

States like Oklahoma and Georgia are leading the way in creating high-quality, universal preschool programs. In fact, numerous states led by GOP governors—states such as Alabama, Michigan, and Mississippi--are all investing in quality and expanding coverage to more four-year olds.

And I was thrilled to see that voters in San Antonio, Texas approved a sales tax increase last fall to provide about $31 million for the city’s cutting-edge, pre-K 4 SA initiative.

One of our terrific panelists, Congressman Castro, is from San Antonio, and his brother, Julian, is the visionary mayor there. And, as much as I respect the two brothers, I have to tell you, I respect their mom even more! Her commitment to her children is an inspiration to us all.

Mayor Castro's leadership on education has been absolutely outstanding. I got to visit San Antonio last March to take a look at the city’s 2020 program, which has set a goal of graduating 100,000 more adults by 2020.

The 2020 program establishes the expectation that all students will be kindergarten-ready and college- and career-ready. Mayor Castro understands that the best way to improve results at the back end of the education system is to invest in the front end.

The Pre-K 4 SA initiative will dramatically improve the quantity and quality of early learning for the city's four-year olds. It will enhance numeracy and literacy skills and accelerate children’s social and emotional development.

Today, nearly 6,000 four-year olds in San Antonio are eligible for state-funded Pre-K but are not enrolled in a full-day program. In the next eight years, San Antonio essentially aims to cut that enrollment gap in half or more.

Over that eight year period, the city projects the initiative will enroll more than 22,000 four-year olds and provide annual in-service training to a minimum of 2,300 teachers, principals, early education leaders, and community providers.

Stop, take a moment, and think what that means for the future of San Antonio, and the future of our nation if we can take these opportunities to scale!

The truth is that the education of our children must remain a bipartisan cause. We must all work together, to educate our way to a better economy.

It is encouraging to see that both Republican and Democratic leaders believe every family, every child should have access to high-quality, early learning.

Here in Washington, we need business leaders to make the case for the significant return-on-investment and greater equity that high-quality early learning will produce for America's future workforce.

And back home in their communities, we need business leaders to encourage employees, customers, and neighbors to push for and to participate in high-quality preschool in greater numbers.

The federal government can be a strong partner in expanding access to high-quality preschool. But this is ultimately up to state and local leaders.

As David Brooks, the New York Times columnist put it, "If Republicans really believe in opportunity and local control, they will get on board."

Many of my Republican friends share my belief that education is the civil rights issue of our time. They believe, as I do, that in America, education must be the great equalizer—the one force that overcomes differences in race, ethnicity, and privilege.

That American creed is very much in keeping with the core values of Hispanic families of a strong work ethic, family first, and faith.

In America, if you study hard and play by the rules, if you work hard, you should get a fair shot at the future—regardless of your zip code, skin color, or the size of your bank account.

Today, it is time for every young child in America to have access to high-quality preschool. It is time that we level the playing field and stop playing catch-up.

With bipartisan backing, with your commitment and leadership, I believe our nation will soon take its next step to transform preschool education.

I believe state and local leaders, CEOs, teachers, and moms and dads and grandparents will stand up and say: It is time.

So, let the race for the future begin. But let's do everything in our power to ensure that every child in America begins at the same starting line.


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