Opening Statement, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan--Release of NIEER's "The State of Preschool 2012" Yearbook

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Opening Statement, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan--Release of NIEER's "The State of Preschool 2012" Yearbook

April 29, 2013

Secretary Sebelius has been a great advocate for children and a fantastic partner with ED in our work together on early learning. I can't thank her enough for stepping up to do the right thing for children.

It's good to be back at the release of NIEER's annual state of preschool yearbook--though to be frank, I wish this year's analysis had more good news to report.

As Steve summarized, total state funding for preschool fell last year by more than half-a-billion dollars. The number of high-quality programs declined. And roughly a third of the states—16 states—actually reduced enrollment in state preschool programs last year.

That's no way to create a world-class education system. And it's no way to put our students on a path for college- and career-readiness in a knowledge-based, competitive global economy.

To close achievement and opportunity gaps, states, with federal support, must do much more to level the playing field. They have to do much more to provide equal opportunities for children--particularly disadvantaged children--to begin kindergarten at the same starting line.

If ever there was a report that makes the case for the need for President Obama's Preschool for All proposal, this is it.

The truth is that the urgent need for greater access to high-quality preschool for children from low- and moderate-income families is no longer in dispute. Nationwide, fewer than 3 in 10 four-year olds today are enrolled in high-quality preschool programs.

And we know that, on average, children from low-income families start kindergarten—they begin school--12 to 14 months behind their peers in language development and pre-reading skills. 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 the countries. And the United States is 28th among OECD nations in our enrollment of four-year olds in early learning. That is no badge of honor.

Much of the recent cutbacks in state preschool programs were caused by the delayed impact of the recession on state budgets. And I am also very concerned that those budget cuts will get even worse under sequestration.

As I've said before, budgets aren't just numbers, they reveal our value choices.

You don't see our high-performing competitors de-funding education and innovation via sequester. They keep their eye on the prize--and don't let dysfunctional politics create a man-made mess.

They want to invest in education. They want to accelerate their progress, not put the brakes on.

For example, South Korea's investment in education, as a percentage of GDP, increased by nearly a third from 2000 to 2009—while our investment increased by just six percent. In fact, education spending as a percentage of GDP rose at more than twice the U.S. rate in many other countries during the last decade.

Now, in an era of tight budgets and limited resources, it is absolutely right that we ask ourselves, what is the smartest use of our education dollars?

The answer, I believe, is that high-quality early learning is the best education investment we can make in our children, our communities, and ultimately, our country. It is the best bang for our educational buck.

Nobel prize-winning economist James Heckman's analysis of rigorous, longitudinal data from the Perry Preschool Project found a return of seven dollars to every one dollar of public investment in high-quality preschool programs. And a longitudinal study of the Chicago Child Parent Centers also found an ROI of seven to one.

The long-term benefits come not just from improved academic performance but also from gaining hugely important non-cognitive skills, like the ability to self-regulate.

Our high-performing, international competitors know about ROI, they know about the big return on investment in high-quality early learning.

In OECD countries, 15-year olds who had attended some preschool were more than a year ahead of their peers in reading, compared to students who had not attended preschool.

Now, one piece of good news in NIEER's report is that, over the long-term, over the last decade, states have moved to significantly expand preschool programs and elevate quality.

I'm convinced that is where the force of history and the force and power of the evidence about early learning are leading all of us.

And I see many encouraging signs that this year and next, states will be expanding high-quality preschool programs.

Twenty-seven governors—Democrats and Republicans alike—referenced early learning in their States of the State addresses this year. Numerous states--including states led by GOP governors, like Alabama and Michigan--are investing this year in quality and expanding coverage to more four-year olds.

And last November, voters in cities such as San Antonio, Denver, and St. Paul all approved tax increases to support preschool programs in their local communities.

So, looking ahead, I have great faith that our country, our states, and our communities are moving toward building a better system of early learning. History, the evidence, and old-fashioned common-sense are all on the side of the President's proposal for investing in early education from birth to five and Preschool for All.

And now I'd like to turn this over to my friend Randi Weingarten. She is a long-time champion for high-quality early childhood education. And she understands, at a fundamental level, how those opportunities can transform a child's life chances.