Opening Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the Panel "The Obama Preschool Initiative"

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Opening Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the Panel "The Obama Preschool Initiative"

The Brookings Institution, Washington DC

May 29, 2013

My thanks to Ron Haskins, and the Brookings Institution, for hosting this discussion about President Obama's landmark proposal for high-quality preschool.

And I'm happy to see Congresswoman Nancy Johnson, who's been a longtime champion for children and a great thought-partner on the President's proposal.

As you know, the President has proposed a groundbreaking plan for supporting and preparing our nation's children from birth to age 5 in a seamless continuum.

For children ages zero to three, the President's proposal includes a new Early Head Start-Child Care partnership at the Department of Health and Human Services to improve quality, and it expands the Administration's home visiting initiative. Home visiting is showing great results.

As anyone who's ever had to care for a new baby knows, you need all the help and advice you can get. And that is often especially the case for struggling single parents, first-time parents, and teen parents.

For four-year-olds, the President's proposal would create a new federal-state partnership to enable states to provide voluntary, universal, high-quality preschool for children from low- and moderate-income families.

These are critical, long-term investments in early learning that our country needs. They are the best, most effective tool we have to close achievement and opportunity gaps.

We know that children from low-income families begin school, on average, 12 to 14 months behind their peers in language development and pre-reading skills. They start school as a five-year-old already behind—and often never catch up.

We know that nationwide, for those children who are lucky enough to enroll in a preschool program, fewer than 3 in 10 of four-year olds – less than 30 percent – today are in programs that are high-quality.

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

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. And the United States is 28th among OECD nations in our enrollment of four-year-olds in early learning.

That's an embarrassment--and it's a missed opportunity for a huge return on investment.

Rigorous, longitudinal analyses 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. Children who went to preschool have fewer special needs as they move through school. They get better jobs. They're in better health. They commit less crime.

A seven-to-one ROI – that's a better return than you typically get in the stock market, in real estate or anywhere else you could put your money.

No study is perfect or fully representative of our diverse population. But the cumulative evidence over four decades is absolutely compelling. High-quality preschool gives children the foundation they need to succeed.

Let me mention a just few other examples.

Four-year-olds who have gone through Tulsa, Oklahoma's preschool program start kindergarten seven months ahead in pre-literacy skills and four months ahead in math skills. The Tulsa program has small class sizes and well-trained teachers – both features of the President's proposal.

A recent evaluation of the Great Start Readiness Program in Michigan found that 58 percent of the state preschool participants graduated from high school on time, compared to 43 percent of non-participants of similar background. The impact of Michigan's preschool program on on-time graduation rates was even bigger among students of color – 60 percent versus 37 percent. Think about the power there – almost doubling high school graduation rates.

And in New Jersey, the follow-up to the Abbott Preschool Program study continues to find that high-quality preschool programs increase achievement in language arts and literacy, math, and science through fourth and fifth grade.

Despite all the evidence, dramatically expanding high-quality preschool poses real challenges. These days, getting folks here in Washington to do anything proactive together is a challenge.

But I'm actually confident these challenges can be met because of the leadership I already see across the country from Republicans, Democrats and Independents.

Twenty-seven governors – more than half – as well as the mayor of the District of Columbia referenced early learning in their State of the State addresses this year.

These state leaders – regardless of party affiliation – recognize that early learning helps prepare young children for educational success, provides crucial support for families, and ultimately strengthens our nation's economy.

As Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper said in his State of the State address, "Early childhood education is one of the best investments we can make to ensure Colorado's kids are competitive and prepared for the future."

Washington Governor Jay Inslee gets it, too. He said, "We need to invest more where we get the biggest return, in high-quality early learning programs."

Governors from states as diverse as Hawaii, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Vermont, and West Virginia – all called for expanded access to preschool to more four-year-olds.

When I talked to Alabama Governor Robert Bentley, a Republican, after the President unveiled his preschool proposal at the State of the Union, the Governor told me he felt like President Obama had stolen his best lines.

Clearly, we owe him one, so here's a line from Governor Bentley: "I truly believe by allowing greater access to a voluntary pre-k education, we will change the lives of children in Alabama."

Governor Bentley isn't just talking – he is walking the walk. Just last week, he signed a bill investing more than $28 million in Alabama's preschool program to provide 1,500 more children with access to high-quality preschool.

And we're seeing many other governors working hard and providing real leadership to do what's right for kids – and ultimately for their states.

Governor Susana Martinez says this year the state will be able to support all 40 preschool programs across New Mexico that applied for funding. She recognizes that to get a child reading by the end of third grade, you must start exposing them to books, letters and sounds long before they enter school.

This Friday, I'll be traveling to Georgia, our nation's first universal preschool program for four-year-olds, and a state the President highlighted as a leader for high-quality preschool when he visited in February.

In Atlanta, I'll be standing with Governor Nathan Deal, another Republican, who made a promise in his State of the State address that he recently kept. Governor Deal requested, and the legislature recently approved, a $13 million increase in pre-K funding to add 10 additional days to the preschool year and increase the salaries of deserving teachers.

That is state leadership that helps children. And that's what the President's proposal seeks to support.

The Preschool for All plan would help all states keep their promises to our children and ensure that more than a million additional kids – regardless of their zip code or family income – are ready to succeed in school and beyond.

I've had the opportunity recently to visit preschool classrooms all over the country—including Delaware, California and, recently, Michigan.

Governor Rick Snyder and I visited the Perry school in Ypsilanti, where 50 years ago a group of preschoolers first participated in a famous study that has found preschool's benefits continue well into the adult years. In Detroit, Governor Snyder and I sat scrunched in tiny chairs and read "The Rainbow Fish" to four-year olds who were fortunate enough to get to attend a high-quality preschool.

Like other governors, Governor Snyder tells me there are not enough programs to meet the need in Michigan.

Yet despite tight budgets and difficult economic times, these governors – and many others – are champions for young children.

They are prioritizing early childhood because they know that in America, education must fulfill its role as the great equalizer. It must be the one force that overcomes differences in race, privilege, and national origin.

In Washington, we are ready to follow their lead and support their efforts to transform the life chances of their children. We're asking Congress to help support the governors – and all the states – in a historic federal-state partnership.

The President's birth-to-five proposal is not only an essential investment to build a foundation for prosperity and entry into the middle class, it is also the right thing to do. As Governor Tom Corbett said in his State of the State address this year, "Why do we want to spend more on these programs? Because every child in Pennsylvania deserves an equal start in life—and I intend to see that promise kept."

Like Governor Corbett, I believe every child in America deserves an equal start in life—in rural America, in our suburbs, and in our cities.

So, let's invest to bring every child to same starting line. Help us get our nation's public schools out of the catch-up business. Let's keep our promises--and reinvigorate the nation's commitment to equal opportunity.

It's time. Our children and our country cannot wait.