Smart Investments in Early Learning

Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at an Early Learning Event with HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at Rolling Terrace Elementary School, Takoma Park, MD

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Rolling Terrace Elementary School represents so much of what we want our country to be like and aspire to. Many of the students at Rolling Terrace grow up in poverty and the children speak as many as 35 different languages—it's a baby United Nations! But the children are thriving. They have great adults who take care of them and are excited to work with them.

I talked to a lot of kids during our classroom visits and asked them if they like coming to school. Luckily, they all said "yes!"

They want to be here, and they are coming to an environment where they are going to be successful, where they are going to be prepared to take on the challenges of poverty and assimilating to children from around the globe. So to the collective adult leadership here—board members, the superintendent, teachers, principals, and staff—thank you. It's fun to see.

The best part of my job is getting out into classrooms to talk to children, teachers, parents, and school leaders. If you want to see how government can make smart investments in support of committed and talented educators, come to Rolling Terrace Elementary School. Go sit in the preschool and Head Start classrooms that Secretary Sebelius and I just visited.

In those classrooms, children are learning to read and exploring in math and science centers. Their health, social, and emotional development is being shaped in ways that can benefit them for decades to come.

Government—federal, state, and district government—invested in the education and development of those toddlers and young children. And it's one of the best investments we, as a nation, can make in the future.

I am tremendously excited about the President's landmark plan to create a new partnership with states to provide universal access to high-quality preschool for all four-year olds.

It would provide the biggest 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 children to have access to high-quality preschool.

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

Dramatically expanding high-quality early learning is a win-win proposition. It would make America more productive, more competitive, and save untold millions in taxpayer dollars. And it's past time that we get our public schools out of the educational catch-up business. America can't win the race for the future by cheating children at the starting line.

I hope everyone here today appreciates that this is an extraordinary moment. It is not often that you find two government departments, with overlapping responsibilities, working together hand-in-hand.

I am so grateful to my friend and partner Secretary Sebelius for her leadership. With vision and courage, she has worked tirelessly to put the interests of children first and to do the right thing. We have together on everything from the H1N1 flu to our Opportunity Agenda to this—and our Early Childhood work has been the most rewarding and fun.

The President's plan would create a new federal-state partnership to enable states to provide high-quality preschool for four-year olds from low- and moderate-income families, up to 200 percent of the poverty line. And it would provide incentives for states to cover all families who want to send their children to 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 partnership with local school-based and community providers.

The urgent need for greater access to high-quality preschool for low- and moderate-income students is not in dispute today.

Just ask a parent or kindergarten teacher if there are gaps in learning and 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 pre-reading and language skills.

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.

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 to state and local leaders to choose the means for reaching that bar.

Under the President's plan, 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.

The President has pledged to fully offset the cost of his early learning plan so it does not add a dime to the deficit. But some skeptics question if we should make a major investment in preschool in a period of fiscal austerity.

In the end, that is a false choice. In fact, I would suggest to you that we really can't afford not to make these investments in the future of our babies, toddlers, and four-year olds.

As President Obama has pointed out, "if you are looking for a good bang for your educational buck," high-quality preschool is the place to look. If we want to invest wisely, and save taxpayers' money over the long haul, this is the best play we can make.

I wish that some of our lawmakers on the Hill could have been with us here today—or would talk to the governors—many of whom are Republicans—who are expanding high-quality preschool programs in their states.

I wish they could have sat with Secretary Sebelius and me, and watched children learn and engage, with excitement and curiosity. We're in the real world here today, seeing a glimpse of the children that could be hurt by sequestration.

Sadly, many members of Congress are out-of-touch with the concerns of parents, students, and teachers—they are out of touch with the real-world consequences of their actions.

Remember, school districts spend about 80 percent of their annual budgets on personnel, so sequestration will have a big impact on teachers and school staff.

Sequestration would cut Title I by $725 million. That blanket cut could affect 1.2 million disadvantaged students—and it would require states and districts to cover the costs of about 10,000 teachers and aides.

If that budget cut was translated into furloughs, it would be equivalent to furloughing 541,000 teachers and other staff for five days—a whole week of work.

Other cuts include $600 million in special education. That would require states and districts to cover the cost of approximately 7,200 teachers, aides, and other staff.

The furlough equivalent in special education would be 433,000 teachers and other staff missing a week of work. And Secretary Sebelius can tell you about the impact that sequestration could have in Head Start.

Cutting programs for our most vulnerable children is economically foolish. And it is morally indefensible.

In his State of the Union, President Obama called for "smarter government." Sequestration—with its indiscriminate approach to slashing the budget—is an example of dumb government at its finest.

It is mind boggling that Washington has manufactured a crisis when educators and parents are facing real challenges every day.

These across-the-board budget cuts were not caused by a hurricane or natural disaster. They are a man-made mess. And they can be fixed now by men and women who act with courage, commitment, and a willingness to compromise.

They can be fixed by lawmakers who come to the table to do the right thing for children and to keep growing America's middle class. This is not rocket science, this is not an intellectually difficult challenge to resolve—and it must be done.

And now I'd like to turn this over to Secretary Sebelius.


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