The State of States Preschool—and Round Two of the RTT-Early Learning Challenge

Archived Information

The State of States Preschool—and Round Two of the RTT-Early Learning Challenge

Remarks of Arne Duncan at the National Institute for Early Education Research

April 10, 2012

Thank you, Steve [Barnett], for that kind introduction—and for the important work of the National Institute for Early Education Research over the last decade. Your energy and dedication to documenting and detailing the state of preschool is a vital resource for understanding where we need to go to ensure that all children—and especially those with high needs—have access to high-quality early learning and a strong start in life.

We have learned a lot about the quality of preschool programs from NIEER's work over the last ten years. As Steve pointed out, some of the news is good. Some is not so good.

We know that preschool enrollment has increased significantly over the past decade. State-funded preschool has expanded from 42 programs in 37 states to 51 programs in 39 states since 2001. In many communities, preschool is now just "part of school." People take it as a given—because they know how important it is and because they want their children to participate.

Despite this growth in enrollment and state-funded preschool programs, state funding per child for early learning continues to decline. This is deeply troubling to me—penny-wise and pound-foolish.

Twenty-six of the 39 states—two-thirds of the states—with state-funded preschool programs decreased funding per-child. Eight of those states cut per-child spending by 10 percent or more from the previous year.

We cannot continue down the path of cutting investments in early learning and jeopardizing the quality of programs for young children. Budgets are never just numbers. How we spend our resources, especially in tough economic times, reflects our values.

It's important to acknowledge that, even in a tough budget climate, 11 states chose to increase preschool spending. Maine showed strong leadership, increasing their investments by almost 10 percent, or an additional $162 per child. Nebraska, Kentucky, and Maryland all demonstrated real commitment and courage.

All the early childhood experts, teachers, and parents here today know the compelling research that documents the value of high-quality early learning. You know that the benefits of high-quality early childhood programs echo not just in the early years of elementary school but throughout a child's life. A high-quality early learning experience can have a ripple effect. It starts with ensuring more children with high-needs enter kindergarten ready to succeed. It continues by supporting our children's achievement through elementary school, middle school, and high school, reducing the risk of our youth dropping out.

It helps to lower the rates of remedial education before entering college—and increases the odds of completing college. Literally, decades later, high-quality early learning programs even increase employment rates and earnings.

And those are just the educational and economic benefits. High-quality early learning has tremendous social benefits too, reducing rates of crime, delinquency, and teen pregnancy. It is the best investment we can make.

It is for all of these reasons that our Department has worked to create a program that encourages and helps states to coordinate their critical investments in early learning systems. Last year, Secretary Sebelius and I shared with you the news that with the help of Congress, the Administration provided $500 million in federal funding to create the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge. In a matter of months, early learning experts, working together with state and local leaders from 35 states, D.C. and Puerto Rico, helped craft comprehensive plans for expanding access to high-quality early learning.

Last December at the White House, Secretary Sebelius and I announced the nine winning states. Many other states submitted high-quality plans—we simply didn't have enough resources to fund every state proposal.

Inspiring work is happening in these nine states. I want to share just a few examples.

All nine states have developed plans to implement a statewide kindergarten entry assessment.

The Kindergarten entry assessment is an important tool which can give teachers, parents, and policymakers a picture of children's skills and dispositions as they enter kindergarten. Let me be absolutely clear, though, that this is not a simplified fill-in-the-bubble test for five-year olds.

In fact, many Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge states are focused on improving their understanding of children's learning and development by building comprehensive assessments systems that emphasize the importance of teachers' observation and documentation. Many are implementing performance-based tasks. They are using multiple forms of evidence, and they are taking into consideration multiple contributors in the process, including families.

States are using this assessment data for various purposes—to improve programs, to engage parents, and to work toward a more systematic approach to providing effective early learning programs.

For example, Washington State will align programs with practices for preparing preschool and kindergarten teachers. It will involve families as partners in their children's education, and provide high-level summary data to inform state and local policy.

Ohio and Maryland are building partnerships to develop a new Kindergarten entry formative assessment that they plan to make available to other interested states. It will measure and document children's progress in preschool, and help providers and parents to fully understand how their children are learning.

Minnesota and North Carolina are targeting critical early education investments to high-needs areas through place-based initiatives.

Both states are focusing on rural areas. They will provide much-needed resources for training and coaching for improved health practices, developmental screening, and expanding home visiting programs.

Rhode Island and Ohio are pursuing their own innovations. They are expanding scholarships for early learning teachers and providing bonuses for them, with the help of additional resources from private and philanthropic partners.

These states are off to a strong start. Their work is building a tremendous portfolio of innovative, statewide approaches to elevating standards and expanding access to early learning programs.

Today, I'm pleased to share with you that we have invited five additional states to join their efforts.

Yesterday, our Department, together with Health and Human Services, announced that $133 million in fiscal year 2012 budget funding will soon be available for new, state-level Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grants.

The next five states with the highest ranked applications in last year's competition—Colorado, Illinois, New Mexico, Oregon, and Wisconsin—will be invited to apply for a share of the fund.

Though this new pool of funding is smaller than the 2011 fund, we felt that continued support for early learning is imperative, and should be made available to more states, even in times of tight budgets. These states all submitted strong applications, and we are thrilled to now be able to partner with them.

It is our hope that these five states will take advantage of this opportunity—and help build on the growing momentum to build effective early learning programs into systems of excellence. The remaining dollars from this year's $550 million Race to the Top fund will go toward a new district-level competition.

It is too early to share full details for either program. But we expect to publish a notice of proposed rulemaking later this spring for the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge in the Federal Register.

In the last decade, America has unfortunately made inconsistent and piecemeal efforts to provide children with high-quality early learning programs for a strong start in life. Let us treat those shortcomings, as documented in NIEER's report, as an urgent wake-up call to change course and invest in our children's future.

Building and expanding successful early learning programs is key to strengthening and fostering a cradle-to-career education system. High-quality early learning is what we want for our own children—which means that it must be what we want for all children.