The Early Learning Field's Turning Point

Archived Information

The Early Learning Field's Turning Point

Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to the Education Commission of the States 2013 National Forum, St. Louis, Missouri

June 27, 2013

Thank you, Governor Sandoval. It's great to be here with my colleague and good friend, Secretary Sebelius, to talk about early learning.

Before I begin, let me give a quick shout out to Gov. Sandoval. His recent budget provides an additional $40 million for an expansion of all-day kindergarten from 128 schools to 201 schools. And it also provided $40 million for class size reduction in kindergarten—which will reduce all-day kindergarten class sizes from an average of 26 students per class to an average of 21 students per class.

These are not easy budget times, and none of these investments will pay short-term dividends. As all of you know, early childhood is the ultimate long-term investment—so I thank the Governor for his leadership and courage in this area.

I want to thank the Education Commission of the States for having us here, and for all the work that governors, lawmakers, state chiefs, and early learning experts and advocates do at the state level to strengthen early learning.

It's no secret that our children don't have lobbyists, don't have PACs, don't make campaign contributions, and can't vote. And so I'm here today to urge you to help give a voice, informed by research, to those who, sadly, are often without voice in debates in Washington.

I hope you'll walk away from this plenary session today with two takeaway messages.

The first takeaway is that investing in high-quality early learning is the best educational investment we can make as a nation. As President Obama says, it's the best bang for the educational buck because it has such a high ROI, or return on investment.

My good friend, Governor Hickenlooper, who serves as your chair, made much the same point in his State of the State address this year when he said that "early childhood education is one of the best investments we can make to ensure Colorado's kids are competitive and prepared for the future."

The second takeaway is: I hope that you walk away from this session with a renewed sense of urgency—and the recognition that we are at a fundamental turning point in the early learning field.

As you know, President Obama has proposed a landmark plan that would enable states to provide universal access to high-quality preschool for four-year olds from low-income and moderate-income families.

Let me put the magnitude of this investment in context. The President's proposal would provide the biggest increase in educational opportunity in the preschool-12 space in this century. One of my heroes, Marian Wright Edelman, called the President's early learning plan a "giant step forward for children."

We must understand the history of this movement. We can't forget that in 1971, Congress passed a law that provided free, universal access to early childhood services and child care for children from low-income families. What happened? President Nixon vetoed that law.

And, in the 42 long years since then, the evidence that high-quality early learning works has multiplied many times over. But over the decades, the United States has fallen badly behind high-achieving countries in the provision of high-quality early learning.

For those children who are lucky enough to enroll in a preschool program, fewer than 3 in 10 of our four-year-olds—less than 30 percent—are in programs today that are high-quality. What we are doing is simply not good enough.

We cannot let this opportunity pass. Our children cannot wait another 42 years. We cannot let the perfect become the enemy of the good, as so often happens in Washington.

Governors, advocates, educators, philanthropists, CEOs, and leaders in the nonprofit world who all believe in the importance of early intervention cannot remain silent in their silos. Congress, and state and local leaders desperately need to hear your unified voice, your collective support, and your expert input.

Facts matter; and, today, the U.S. badly lags behind other nations in supporting early learning. Out of 29 industrial nations, the U.S. devotes less public spending to early learning as a percentage of GDP than 24 of our competitors.

Slovenia, Mexico, Chile, and Argentina devote proportionately more public spending to early learning than we do. And the United States is 28th among OECD nations in our enrollment of four-year-olds in early learning.

That is morally and educationally unacceptable. And from a long-term, economic-competitiveness standpoint, it is just plain dumb.

For our students to remain competitive in a knowledge-based, global economy, we must do much, much more to level the playing field to enable every child to begin school at the same starting line. We must, once and for all, get our schools out of the "catch-up" business.

Our nation's failure to systematically invest in high-quality early learning is a huge missed opportunity. Rigorous, longitudinal analysis by the Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman found a return of seven dollars to every one dollar of public investment in high-quality preschool programs.

As you know, a seven-to-one ROI is a better return than any of us typically gets in the stock market, in real estate, or anywhere else you could put your money.

Children who go to high-quality preschool need fewer special services as they move through school. They get better jobs. They're in better health. They commit less crime. In short, high-quality early learning can, and does, transform the life chances of children.

The President's plan is comprehensive, not piecemeal. It would support a high-quality, seamless continuum of early learning opportunities from birth through age 5 that would help prepare infants, toddlers, and young children for success in kindergarten and beyond.

Home visiting, Early Head Start, new child care partnerships, and Head Start would cover children birth through age 3. The Department of Health and Human Services would lead and drive all of that critically important work.

Over time, four-year olds in Head Start would transition to state-run Preschool for All programs, freeing up more Head Start funds to serve literally hundreds of thousands more three-year olds in the a program that would continue to be administered by HHS.

Now, contrary to what some of you may have heard, the President's Preschool for All plan would not be a new Federal entitlement program.

States would only participate if they wanted to. For those that do, states could use federal funds to create or expand high-quality preschool programs, in partnership with local school-based and community providers. We would welcome and encourage mixed-delivery systems.

Our theory of action in expanding high-quality preschool is going to be the same as it was in the first term, with a strong emphasis on supporting and partnering with states, incentivizing innovation, and identifying 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. Our Department should set a high bar for quality in preschool programs. But it should leave it to state and local leaders to choose the best means for reaching the bar.

That theory of action was very much the operating premise of the $600 million-plus Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge, where Secretary Sebelius and her staff at HHS have been fantastic partners.

Fourteen states won grants to help support their efforts to coordinate their critical investments in early learning systems.

But 35 states, plus DC and Puerto Rico, applied for the RTT-Early Learning Challenge grants.

And I'm thrilled that many states that were not fortunate enough to win grants—with the limited funding we had—have now crafted, and are committed to implementing, comprehensive plans for expanding access to high-quality early learning.

I'm also so pleased that my good friend, colleague, and another one of my personal heroes, Barbara Bowman, is slated to lead a breakout session on RTT-ELC grants later this morning. When she speaks, please listen closely.

Barbara played a leading role in the development of the RTT-ELC grants. And she was an unstoppable force in dramatically improving coordination between our department and HHS.

Historically, that relationship could frankly be characterized as dysfunctional or non-existent. But that reality made no sense—and it served children poorly. I've called Barbara the intellectual godmother of President Obama's early learning plan.

So, in keeping with this theory of action from the first term, states would be required under the President's plan 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 data systems.

States and young children would reap enormous benefits from the President's plan. We estimate, for example, that Missouri could receive about $48 million just in the first year it participates in the Preschool for All program.

That funding, combined with an initial 10 percent state match of $4.8 million, would enable Missouri's providers to serve about 5,900 additional children from low- and moderate-income families in the first year of the program alone.

Illinois could receive a projected $102 million—enough, with the state match, to serve more than 12,000 children.

Given Congress's recent track record of dysfunction and inaction, I can see why you might be skeptical about legislation that entails substantial, new investments in young children and babies. Yet for all the very real challenges, I am actually very hopeful.

An unusually diverse, powerful, bipartisan coalition is forming in favor of dramatically expanding high-quality early learning. We have started holding fascinating town hall meetings in communities all across the country—most recently in Michigan, Georgia, Ohio, and Kentucky.

CEOs, generals and admirals from the armed services, law-enforcement and faith-based leaders, philanthropists, a bipartisan mix of governors, and national thought leaders like Hillary Clinton are all promoting major investments in expanding high-quality early learning programs.

At the end of May, more than 300 business leaders and organizations from around the country signed an open letter to President Obama and the Congress, asking that they increase funding for early childhood education.

The signatories of that letter included local Chambers of Commerce, the Committee for Economic Development, and the former CEOs of Macy's, Proctor & Gamble, Xerox, Yahoo!, Northwest Airlines, and the current chairman of the PNC Financial Services Group.

These business leaders weren't just engaged in some feel-good philanthropy. That's not how they think.

In their letter to the President and Congress, they wrote that quality early childhood programs have—and I quote—a "significant and positive impact on the skilled workforce, [on the] customer base, [and on the] economy and nation." These CEOs love this because they fundamentally understand ROI!

Earlier this month, Mission: Readiness—a group of 350 retired military leaders, generals, and admirals—released a report that projects the President's plan could lead to two million more high school graduates nationwide and $150 billion in net economic benefits to society.

These generals and admirals believe the shortfall of high-quality early learning in America is so serious that it is literally a long-term, national security threat to maintaining a top-flight military force.

Why do they think that? Because today, three-fourths of young adults are not able to serve in the military, either because they dropped out of high school, can't pass the entrance exam, are too obese, or have a criminal record. And dropping out of high school, criminality, and obesity are all reduced by high-quality early learning.

And last, but certainly not least, in statehouses across the country, both Democratic and Republican governors are investing public dollars to expand high-quality preschool programs. Governors can't just talk, like some folks in Washington—they actually have to get things done.

In what must be some kind of record, more than half of our governors—27—referenced early learning in their State of the State addresses this year. From Mississippi to Minnesota, governors are investing in early learning and preschool.

After listening to the President's State of the Union address, Governor Bentley of Alabama, a staunch Republican, joked to me that he felt like President Obama had stolen his best lines. But like so many of his colleagues, Gov. Bentley isn't just talking—he is walking the walk.

Last month, he signed a bill investing more than $28 million in Alabama's preschool program, enabling 1,500 more children to gain access to high-quality preschool.

Last month, I visited the well-known Perry Preschool Child Development Center in Ypsilanti with Michigan's Republican governor, Rick Snyder. Shortly afterwards, Michigan's lawmakers voted to spend $65 million more next year on preschool programs.

That's a funding increase of close to 60 percent—and will add up to 16,000 more four-year-olds to pre-K next year.

One of the reasons I am so excited about the state leadership we are seeing is that high-quality early learning programs are especially effective at developing the critical social and non-cognitive skills that are so essential to succeeding in life—skills like self-regulation, resisting distractions, building relationships with peers, and managing frustration.

James Heckman, the Nobel-prize-winning economist, is convinced that the capacity to strengthen the non-cognitive skills of children when they are young is one of the secrets of success in high-quality programs. And a wealth of research on the importance of these non-cognitive skills supports his argument.

A child's ability to delay gratification at the young age of four predicts academic performance and social competence in adolescence. And attention skills at the beginning of kindergarten predict academic achievement throughout elementary school and the odds of completing college by age 25.

I hope that all the governors, state chiefs, and early learning advocates and experts here will not only publicize those findings but work to systematically engage parents around the importance of improving executive functions and non-cognitive skills in young children.

Now, as encouraging as these recent state investments are in high-quality early learning, the unmet need remains huge. That's why we must be a good partner and also invest.

In Oklahoma, about 5,000 four-year olds sit on preschool waiting lists. In Massachusetts, 30,000 children from low-income families linger on wait lists, unable to obtain the state voucher to pay for their care.

Georgia recently restored pre-K funding cut during the recession but still has 8,000 children on the waiting list. In Pennsylvania, 6,700 children are waiting for openings. The list goes on and on.

In the end, education is so much more than a set of numbers on the ledger line. Education is not just an expense, it's an investment. It is a value choice.

Today, an unusual coalition of bipartisan partners across the country is pressing to expand high-quality early learning. We need that outside/in strategy. We must do everything in our power to make sure we invest in our babies and children. We have to make the right value choices.

We can be both flexible and creative on funding for the President's landmark early learning plan. But the default position cannot be that politicians all continue to say they love kids, they care about kids, but not invest in them.

The default position can't be that we have to invest but can only do so on the cheap. Transforming and elevating the quality of early learning costs money.

Let me be clear. It is not going to be accomplished through social impact bonds alone, though that approach is a promising, innovative effort being led by the private sector. It is not going to get done by diverting money from Head Start.

It's not going to get done through a slightly bigger Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge program. It is not going to get done through wishful thinking.

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 in America.

I have to give a huge shout-out to Governor Hickenlooper here. His courage and commitment to early learning has been an example that the rest of the nation can follow.

The school finance law that he signed last month would dramatically expand Colorado's Preschool Program to allow access for at-risk 3-year olds and 4-year olds.

And he has committed to making the tough call to go back to the voters in November to find new revenue streams to pay for the preschool-12 school finance overhaul. Colorado is leading the nation to where we need to go.

We absolutely cannot give up investing in the things that make us prosperous, competitive, and a flourishing civic society. The path to the middle class runs straight through our classrooms. Simply put, America cannot win the race for the future without investing in education.

And now I'd like to turn this over to my colleague and good friend, Secretary Sebelius. We have become a traveling roadshow together. We had a day recently with a breakfast meeting, then a lunch meeting—and walking out of lunch, she asked, "Where are we going for dinner?"

She has been an extraordinary partner in our departments' unprecedented, joint efforts to strengthen early learning. I've loved working with her—and have learned so much from her.

She is deeply committed to keeping the interests of children first and foremost—and I can't thank her enough for her moral leadership and courage. Please welcome Kathleen Sebelius.