Archived Information

The Top Ten List for Why the Expansion of High-Quality Early Learning is Inevitable

Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to the National Governors Association Winter 2014 Meeting, February 23, 2014
(Note: Speaker abridged and deviated in spots from his prepared remarks)


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Thank you, Governor Beshear. It’s great to be back at the NGA. And I welcome this opportunity to talk about the role of early learning with our governors. On both sides of the political aisle, it’s the governors who are really leading the nation in expanding high-quality early learning, from birth to age five.

Before I talk about early learning, I want to briefly touch on a short handout in your binders. It highlights states that are making rapid progress in early learning, K-12 education, and higher education.

The metrics here are pretty simple and straightforward. This PowerPoint handout highlights States that have the biggest two-year increases in funding for early learning, and state preschool programs that are providing both access and quality.

In K-12 education, the table highlights States where students made gains than were significantly above average on the NAEP assessments from 2011 to 2013.

And in higher education, this handout highlights States that have significant increases over three years in college attainment among young adults and are doing a good job of decreasing the net price of attending public institutions of higher education.

I want to encourage every governor to think of themselves as the education governor. And if you glance through these data, at least three things jump out.

The first is that policy matters. Leadership—your leadership—matters a great deal.

It’s true that demographics and the economy are reflected in these tables as well. But when I look at this data I see that the leadership of the governors assembled in this room makes a critical difference. I bet that every governor in a rapidly-improving state can tell me what the state did to better their record.

The second conclusion that jumps out is that rapidly-improving States are a bipartisan bunch. There are a lot of different States on these lists. I often say that education must be a bipartisan issue--and these numbers bear that out.

Finally, I’d like to see governors be more transparent and accountable about progress in education. Let’s be clear about where education is improving, where it is standing still, and where outcomes may be worsening.

I want to shift gears here and talk about early learning for a few minutes. And I think a lot of the same themes stand out in the field of early learning—the importance of bipartisanship; the value of leadership; and the need for transparency about the challenges that lie ahead.

The bipartisan Strong Start for America’s Children Act--introduced by Senator Tom Harkin and Congressmen George Miller and Richard Hanna--reflects President Obama’s groundbreaking Preschool for All proposal of last year. It has not passed Congress yet. But I remain optimistic about the progress we have made as a nation, and the progress that we will continue to make in states and local communities across the country.

In fact, I want to suggest today that we have reached an important, historic turning point in the debates over early learning. Demographic, economic, and ideological forces are all combining today to propel a big expansion of high-quality early learning. We just need Congress to catch up with the rest of the country.

So let me do something a little different here, and give you a Top Ten list of why I think it’s inevitable that our states and our nation are going to see a dramatic expansion of high-quality early learning over the next few years.

I’ll start with reason #10 on the countdown: There is much greater public awareness today of the importance of the early years to the long-term health, learning, and success of our children and our communities--and it is coupled with widespread public support for a big expansion of early learning.

The importance of the early years is no longer really a subject of serious public debate. And I suspect everyone here has heard of the research on early learning by Nobel Laureate James Heckman. He and other researchers have documented a high rate of return on investment, or ROI, for high-quality early learning.

Dr. Heckman, for example, found a return of seven dollars to every one dollar of public investment in high-quality preschool programs. I think that few government programs can claim such a high ROI for taxpayers, for business, and for society.

It is also telling that national polling shows overwhelming support—from both Democratic and Republican voters—for a dramatic expansion of early learning. The public wants to see a bill like the Strong Start for America’s Child Act enacted. And they would like to see it enacted this year.

#9 on the Top Ten List is the fact that a powerful, bipartisan coalition of governors are funding expansions in the states—in some cases, big expansions—of high-quality early learning programs.

Last year, 30 governors—17 Republicans and 13 Democrats—increased funding for preschool in their state budgets. Ten states increased funding more than 20 percent.

And it looks like 2014 is going to see the same kind of stepped-up investment in early learning.

Governor Beshear, for example, is looking to boost preschool funding by $18 million a year. His NGA Education Task Force co-chair, Governor Sandoval, wants to provide an additional $40 million to fund an expansion of all-day kindergarten from 128 schools to 201 schools.

#8 on the Top Ten list is that there is a remarkably diverse and robust coalition of law enforcement officials, military leaders, clergy, CEOs, unions, parents, and others that strongly support expanding high-quality early learning opportunities.

I can’t think of a single issue where you could have CEOs and union leaders, clergymen, military leaders, sheriffs, and states attorney generals all in unanimous agreement that expanding high-quality early learning is essential to our children and our communities. That’s a parade you want to be in front of, not behind.

Here’s #7: The old arguments that states should have no role in providing low- and moderate-income families with voluntary access to early learning and child care have lost force.

Last year, for example, Mississippi made a first-time investment of $3 million to create its first state pre-K program.  In Michigan, Governor Snyder put $65 million into his state’s preschool program last year to create spots for 18,000 additional four-year olds.

This year, Governor Snyder committed in his State of the State to put $65 million more into the program to ensure children in need of preschool have access to it. He pledged, and I quote, that he was going to make Michigan “a no-wait state for early childhood education.” I want every governor to be able to say they are a no-wait state for early childhood education.

#6 on the Top Ten list is that there is a growing recognition that quality matters tremendously when it comes to early learning. No one is out advocating today that quality early learning is free babysitting.

In fact, families are desperately searching for more and better information to help find the best quality programs suited for their children.

In 2009, only 17 states operated a quality rating system for preschool programs. Today, more than 35 states—more than double the number five years ago--have fully implemented Quality Rating and Improvement Systems. And every state except one is planning, developing, or implementing a system.

#5: For the first time, a majority of the states are now assessing the school readiness of children when they enter kindergarten.

These assessments are spotlighting the unfairness of the fact that tens of thousands of kindergartners, in state after state, are starting kindergarten dangerously behind because they may live in the wrong zip code when it comes to preschool  options, or because their parents can’t afford  to send them to quality preschool.

In Oregon, an entry assessment of 40,000 kindergartners showed that only one in three could name five letters of the alphabet. One in seven couldn’t identify a single letter.

In Kentucky, Governor Beshear announced last month that just half of the more than 50,000 students starting kindergarten were ready to learn and succeed. Nearly 26,000 children in Kentucky entered school in September lacking the preparation to succeed in kindergarten.

In Louisiana, 46 percent—nearly half of all kindergarteners--started the school year requiring “intensive support” in literacy, the lowest score possible.

And as Louisiana State Superintendent of Education John White recently testified, when the state tracked those numbers back to the educational settings of four-year old students, it found “wide disparities in the extent to which [preschool] centers are equipping children with fundamental literacy skills.”

As states begin to understand better the social and cognitive development of their entering kindergartners, the lack of school readiness is going to become more and more visible. It takes political courage to tell the truth about children being behind.

#4: The enactment of third grade reading laws in many of your states is going to propel an expansion of high-quality early learning.

In 2012 alone, 14 states passed bills focused on ensuring all students are reading at grade level by third grade. But we know just passing a law without putting the programs in place to assure children can read by third grade won’t work. And one of the most effective ways to get all kids reading by third grade is through high-quality preschool programs. One year is essential; two years is even better. If you are waiting to intervene until third grade, you’re already too late.

#3: America is way behind high-performing countries in our provision of early learning--and there is a growing awareness that high-quality early learning is critical to sustaining our international economic competitiveness.

Many of our competitor nations enroll 95 percent or more of their children in preschool. But in the U.S., only about 2/3 of our four-year olds are enrolled in any type of preschool program, whether it is public, private, or faith-based. And quality varies enormously--many young children are only attending preschool a few hours a week or are spending long days in mediocre child care programs.

#2: America is currently in the midst of an unprecedented wave of innovation and capacity-building when it comes to early learning--and a new federal-state partnership helped unleash this wave of innovation.

Our Administration has invested more than $1 billion in 20 states through the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge. States are using the money to support innovation and to develop integrated systems of early learning and development.

In California, for example, early child coursework has been aligned, for the first time, across 105 community colleges and universities. In Ohio, RTT-Early Learning Challenge funds were used to help launch a five-star quality rating system for all early childhood programs in the state.

Forty states, plus DC and Puerto Rico, applied for the RTT-Early Learning Challenge grants. And in states that didn’t win grants, many governors told me they were going forward with their plans anyway, because it was important and it was the right thing to do for children and families. And in fact, we’ve seen these early learning reforms implemented in non-Early Learning Challenge states like Hawaii, Missouri, and Utah.

As many of you know, Congress gave us $250 million in the fiscal 2014 omnibus budget for a new Preschool Development Grant competition. Those grants are a small but important down payment on the President’s Preschool for All proposal.

These competitive awards will go both to low-capacity states to develop the program quality infrastructure to participate in the Preschool for All Program, and to high-capacity states to improve program quality and support the expansion of high-quality local programs that could serve as models for the Preschool for All initiative.

And finally, #1 on the Top Ten list, and this is the most important factor of all, is: The enormous unmet need and demand for high-quality early learning.

I guarantee you that this unmet need and demand is not going away. In fact, it’s only going to intensify.

Nationally, nearly 60 percent of our nation’s 4.1 million four-year olds are not enrolled in any publicly-funded preschool program.

In every state, the unmet need for early learning is enormous. In Colorado, the Head Start and the state preschool program collectively lack the capacity to serve more than 14,000 at-risk four-year olds. In Pennsylvania, 6,700 children are waiting for openings in the state preschool program.

In Michigan, Gov. Snyder reported last year that 29,000 needy preschool age children didn’t have an opportunity to go to subsidized preschool. “That wasn’t right,” Governor Snyder said a few weeks ago. “We shouldn’t have a wait for preschool.” I couldn’t agree more.

And I want to add that the demand from parents is not just for more preschool slots for four-year olds--it’s for high-quality early learning opportunities, from birth to age five. That unmet need is not just in cities, but in suburbs and rural towns, all across the country.

To take one example, in a number of the suburban counties outside Philadelphia, there are slots for fewer than two percent of 3- and 4-year olds in high-quality subsidized preschool programs, according to a new study.

Now, I absolutely applaud the tremendous, bipartisan leadership the governors have shown on early learning. And I want to encourage each of you now to take the next step.

Please continue to both invest and speak frankly about the need to expand high-quality early learning.

There are a lot of very real, practical challenges that states face in expanding access and improving quality. But as a nation, many of the challenges we face in the early learning space require political courage and a willingness to challenge misinformation, as much as anything else.

So for every governor who believes that high-quality early learning is important, and sees a large unmet need for it in their home state, I want to encourage you to speak up in support of substantial new investments in high-quality early learning.

For every governor who would like to have federal funding to help you expand and improve your own state preschool programs, I want to encourage you to speak up in support of the Strong Start for America’s Children Act.

Strong Start doesn’t create a new federal preschool program--instead it helps states to build on and strengthen the preschool programs they already have, or to establish programs that work for their children and families.

It’s absolutely clear to me that the early learning system of the future will be a mixed delivery system of providers.

That system will include Head Start, state preschool programs, schools, private providers, community-based programs, and any other programs in the states that are willing and able to offer a high-quality program.

Just to be clear, I am agnostic about who provides early learning--as long as it is accessible and high-quality.

In the end, we can be creative on how we fund a landmark early learning bill. We can be innovative about federal-state cost-sharing.

But the default position cannot be that political leaders continue to say they love kids, they care about kids, but won’t invest in them. The default position can’t be that we have to invest but can only so on the cheap.

Transforming and elevating the quality of early learning costs money. It is not going to be accomplished through social impact bonds alone, though that approach is a creative effort being led by the private sector. It is not going to get done by diverting money from Head Start.

How will it get done? By a tenacious commitment from all of us to do what is right for children—including doing the tough work in Congress and in the states to find real revenue streams to finally create a truly world-class system of early learning.

Early learning has become the ultimate bipartisan issue. And if Congress wants to become less dysfunctional, and more functional, there’s no better place to start than on early learning.

The transformation of early learning in America won’t just magically happen through legislation.

It’s going to happen because the demand for change pushes up from the grassroots. And that powerful demand for change is pushing up—from parents and grandparents, from teachers and cops, from business leaders and clergy, from superintendents and sheriffs--and from courageous governors.

I believe that governors can help take their states and our nation where we need to go to improve early learning--and help strengthen our children, our communities, and our country’s future.