Value Choices: Investing in High-Quality Preschool

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Value Choices: Investing in High-Quality Preschool

Remarks of U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the Delaware Early Childhood Council's launch of Delaware's New Early Childhood Strategic Plan

April 15, 2013

It's a pleasure to be here and to participate in the launch of the state's new Early Childhood strategic plan

My friend Governor Markell has been an amazing partner and an extraordinary leader for children in Delaware. And Delaware is helping lead the nation where we need to go through its Race to the Top program and its Race to the Top-Early Learning challenge reforms.

Delaware was just one of two states to win a Race to the Top grant in phase 1 of RTT in March 2010. And I'm thrilled to see that Delaware is now building on the progress it has made in its 2012 Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grant with its new Strategic Plan for early learning.

Delaware's leaders and educators have shown both great leadership and courage in refusing to lower expectations for our students.

I'm pleased to announce today that we will be continuing to invest in promoting state capacity to expand high-quality early learning and personalized student learning.

Our department received about $550 million for the 2013 Race to the Top program. We will invest the majority of that money—about $370 million—for a new Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge competition and to provide supplemental awards for six states who only received 50 percent of their initial request.

In addition, about $120 million will be used for a second round of the Race to the Top-District competition. That investment will support locally developed plans to personalize and deep student learning, enhance educator effectiveness, close achievement gaps, and prepare students to succeed in college and careers.

Now, in all of our work to build a better education system—whether it is at the federal, or state, or local level—we have to keep two overarching goals in mind.

First, we must be tracking whether reform is improving outcomes—whether children's life chances and opportunities are improving, and if achievement gaps and opportunity gaps are narrowing.

And second, especially in a time of tight budgets, we should also be looking at the return on investment—the ROI—of the dollars we invest in education.

I want to talk in particular today about the ROI on President Obama's landmark preschool plan—which would provide the biggest expansion of educational opportunity in preschool-12 education in this century. With respect to improving outcomes, Delaware made important progress since the start of its RTT grants, both in K-12 education and in early learning.

But we also know there is a long way to go before every child in Delaware receives a world-class education that truly prepares them to succeed in a knowledge-based, global economy.

Delaware's students are right around the national average now in both math and English on the NAEP, and the state's eighth graders failed to make a statistically significant improvement in their performance on the NAEP between 2009 and 2011. The Governor and I want to see Delaware become one the highest-performing states in the country.

In a competitive, knowledge-based economy, we must set high expectations for our children. I am pleased to see that in your new Early Learning strategic plan you have set the goal that "Delaware children will become the healthiest in the nation—physically, emotionally, and behaviorally." If we are serious about real academic improvements, we must take care of our children's social and emotional needs.

Your new strategic plan sets ambitious goals for dramatic improvement in the quality of preschool programs and asks for big increases in the number of children with high-needs enrolled in high-quality programs. Five years from now, by 2018, your goal is simple: All programs will be in the top-tier of quality.

Now, the good news in K-12 education in Delaware is that from 2008 to 2010, the on-time high school graduation rate in the state rose more than three percentage points. And Delaware was one of three states in the country where the dropout rate declined by one percent or more in 2010 from the year before.

In year two of the Race to the Top program, Delaware demonstrated statewide student gains in English and math in every grade-band on the state assessment, while narrowing many achievement gaps.

All four of the turnaround schools in the state's Partnership Zone had gains in proficiency in English and math from 2011 to 2012. And statewide, student proficiency is up by almost 10 percentage points in both English and Math from the preceding year. That's a lot of hard work.

All told, an additional 10,000 students were proficient or advanced on the state's DCAS assessment in 2011-12 when compared to the prior year.

Now there is both good news and bad news when it comes to Delaware's early learning system as well. Governor Markell, with the support of the legislature, made a major commitment to investing in high-quality early learning in 2011.

In the midst of tremendous budget pressure, the General Assembly agreed to invest $22 million additional dollars in high-quality early learning. That made the early learning initiative the largest new, ongoing spending priority in the state.

That is leadership in action—and that investment is paying dividends for children.

The state's STARS quality-rating system provides both quality ratings for early learning programs and incentives for programs to improve quality. And in 2012, the number of early learning programs rated in the top three quality categories under STARS nearly tripled, from 36 programs to 102 programs.

The percent of high-needs children in STARS quality-rated programs also tripled, from one in five in 2011 to three in five last year.

But the bad news here is no secret. Quality and access are still big problems. Delaware has the lowest development-screening rate in the nation. Only a third of Delaware's early childhood workforce has a bachelor's degree or higher.

The state's public preschool program for four-year olds is still tiny—and nowhere near adequate to meet the demand for high-quality preschool.

The bottom line of these gaps in quality and access are that most children aren't ready to start school in Delaware. Two out of three children here—two out of three—are not entering kindergarten with the proficiencies necessary for success.

That is the brutal truth. And it is a moral and economic imperative that Delaware do more to level the playing field and provide equal opportunities to begin kindergarten at the same starting line.

We have to get the public schools in this state and across the nation out of the catch-up business. As Governor Markell has said, "where you start in life should never limit how far you can go if you work and study hard."

So, in the time I have left, I'd like to focus on the ROI for the President's groundbreaking preschool proposal. And I want to encourage Delaware's leaders to let Congress know that they value high-quality preschool, and want to invest in our children, even when budgets are tight—just as Delaware did in 2011.

Here is the big-picture summary of the President's Preschool for All proposal. His plan would create a new Federal-State partnership to enable States to provide, universal high-quality preschool for four-year olds from low- and moderate-income families, up to 200 percent of the poverty line.

Contrary to what you may have heard, the President's plan would not be a new Federal entitlement program.

States would use Federal funds to create or expand high-quality preschool programs in partnership with local school-based and community providers.

States would provide an increasing match for the program. And every cent of the $75 billion provided by the Federal government over the next 10 years would be paid for by increases in taxes on cigarettes and tobacco products.

Our theory of action in expanding high-quality preschool is going to be the same as it was in the first term. The Federal role in public education is to support and partner with States, incentivize innovation, and help identify 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. For example, our Department should set a high bar for quality in preschool programs. But it should leave it up to state and local leaders to choose the best means for reaching that bar.

Under the President's plan, states—and I absolutely hope this will include Delaware—would be required to meet quality benchmarks linked to better outcomes for children—like having high-quality State-level standards for early learning and qualified and well-compensated teachers in all preschool classrooms.

The urgent need today for greater access to high-quality preschool for children from low- and moderate-income families is not really 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 12 to 14 months behind their peers in language development and pre-reading skills. That is simply unacceptable.

The U.S. also 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.

The Czech Republic and Chile devote more government spending to early learning. So do Iceland and Italy.

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

Now, in an era of tight budgets and limited resources, it is critical 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 our country. As President Obama has said, "If you are looking for a good bang for your educational buck," high-quality preschool is the place to look.

In the near-term, high-quality preschool reduces placements in special education. It reduces grade retention. It boosts graduation rates. In the long-term, high-quality preschool both increases the odds of holding a job and decreases crime and teen pregnancy.

Rigorous, longitudinal studies by Nobel laureate and economist James Heckman of the Perry Preschool project found a return of seven dollars to every one dollar of public investment in high-quality preschool programs.

A longitudinal study of the Chicago Child Parent Centers also found an ROI of seven to one. That is a higher return on government investment than one would typically get in the stock market.

States like Oklahoma and Georgia know about the high ROI for high-quality early learning. And they are leading the way in creating, universal preschool programs. High-quality preschool is by no means an investment limited to Democratic governors.

I believe it is so important that investing in our nation's future be a bipartisan commitment. In fact, numerous states led by GOP governors—including Alabama and Michigan—are investing in quality and expanding coverage to more four-year olds.

In Georgia, Governor Deal requested and the legislature recently approved a $13 million increase in pre-K funding to add 10 days to the pre-school year and increase the salaries of deserving teachers.

Not only are states investing in high-quality preschool, voters are approving sales tax and property tax increases to fund preschool initiatives. Last November, voters in San Antonio, Denver, and St. Paul, Minnesota all approved tax increases to support preschool programs in their communities.

Voters and parents understand that in today's global economy, ensuring access to high-quality preschool is not a luxury but a necessity. They understand that investing in high-quality preschool is a win-win proposition, with a big economic return.

In the end, I can't stress enough that education is more than a set of numbers on the ledger. Education is not just an expense—it's an investment. In fact, it is one of the most critical investments in the future that we, as a nation, can make.

Budgets reveal our value choices. They reflect the aspirations of our citizens and leaders.

It's true that this is a time of real fiscal challenges. But as the President said in his State of the Union, it is also time to work for "smarter government."

We don't always live up to that goal in Washington. But I've yet to meet a lawmaker who has stated a preference for dumber government.

Unfortunately, sequestration, with its indiscriminate cuts to education, the military, and other critical public investments, is not an example of government at its finest. The President's budget would reverse the negative impact of sequestration.

You don't see our high-performing competitors de-funding education by sequester. In a knowledge-based, globally-competitive economy, our competitors are determined to invest in education.

They want to accelerate their progress, not cut back on public education. They know about ROI. They know about the importance of attracting and retaining businesses that need talent in their countries.

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. Education spending as a percentage of GDP rose at more than twice the U.S. rate in many other countries during the last decade, including Australia.

So, we should not ask, should we invest in education? Instead, we must ask, what are the smartest investments in education—and how can our education system become more productive?

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.

The need for high-quality preschool today to close opportunity gaps is urgent.

So, thank you for all that you do to bring every child to the same starting line. Thank you for all that you do to get us out of the catch-up business. And thank you for all that you do to level the playing field.

It's time. We cannot postpone providing every child with a world-class education. Our children and our country cannot wait.