Note: Speaker deviated from prepared remarks.
I am pleased to be joining NIEER at the release of their annual State of Preschool report because early childhood education is so central to our children and our nation's future. Yet for all of the importance of early childhood education, NIEER's 2010 State of Preschool report reveals some troubling trends.
Last year marked the first time that total state funding for pre-K fell [by $30 million] in the decade that NIEER has been compiling its annual state preschool yearbook. In real dollars, state pre-K spending per child decreased by more than $100 to $4,028. State spending per child is now almost $700 below its 2001-2002 level.
The declining investment in early childhood education would have been even worse without the one-time federal stimulus money. We can't win the race for the future by cheating children at the starting line.
In times of fiscal austerity, there are productive and counterproductive ways to reshape education. There are smart waysand frankly, dumb waysto trim spending.
Cutting investments in high-quality early childhood programs is counterproductive. It is not smart. And I cannot support slashing early childhood dollars and reducing quality.
It is important to underscore that, even in this tight budget climate, seven states increased support for preschool, including states such as Oklahoma, one of the leaders in the provision of early childhood education. But I am deeply concerned that other states are considering further cuts to early childhood programs.
Cutting high-quality early childhood programs is inequitable, especially for disadvantaged children, and it damages our future economic competitiveness.
A robust body of evidence and research shows that high-quality early learning programs help children arrive at kindergarten ready to succeed in school and in life. The best way to close the achievement gap is to start youngby closing the opportunity gap. I want, once and for all, to get schools out of the catch-up business.
Few investments have a bigger return to society than high-quality early childhood programs. High-quality programs don't just improve academic achievementthey increase employment and earnings and they reduce crime, delinquency, and teen parenthood later in life. All of which is why early childhood programs are so important to maintaining our international competitiveness.
There is some good news today. Congress has provided $700 million in the fiscal 2011 budget for continued support of the Department's Race to the Top program. The new RTT money allows for an early learning competition and we will be developing that with the Department of Health and Human Services. It's too early to provide details, but we will get back to you as the implications of the continuing budget resolution get fleshed out.
We need an early learning competition to provide incentives to improve the quality, coherence, and outcomes of early childhood education.
We know that high-quality early childhood programs are one of the best investments we can make in a child's future. But we also know that the quality of too many early childhood programs is uneven. The NIEER report states that "funding levels in some of the states have fallen so low as to bring into question the effectiveness of their programs by any reasonable standard." That is not acceptable.
The early childhood education system is also often not well-coordinated statewide from birth to age 5. Too often, early childhood learning takes place in separate silos.
Finally, there are big gaps in the system. Ten states have no state-funded preschool program. Nationwide, only about a third of four-year olds are enrolled in state preschool programs. Even if you add in Head Start, 60 percent of 4-year oldsthe majorityare not currently enrolled in preschool programs.
Today, in the era of the knowledge economy, improving education is a civil rights issue, an economic imperative, and a long-term national security concern. We have to get better faster than ever before in education.
Cutting high-quality early-childhood programs is not the way to get there. States should not be penny-wise, just to be pound-foolish. We must be smart, and we must be strategic as we get our three- and four-year olds off to the best start in life possible.