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Secretary Duncan Lays Out Early Education Vision

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan doubled down July 17 on the need for new federal revenue to fund a dramatic expansion of early education in this country, calling on federal lawmakers to take the “long view” in supporting one of the White House’s signature initiatives.

Duncan touted president Barack Obama’s preschool-for-all proposal, which asks for $75 billion in spending over 10 years to enroll millions of students in early education programs, while also stressing that the nation’s capital should “get past its dysfunction and work together in this area.” 

EWA hosted a webinar on early education on Wednesday, July 17, that featured Duncan. 

   [EWA Podcast: Early Childhood Education: Not All Options Are Created Equal]

The education secretary described his approach to build support for the president’s plan as an “outside-in strategy” that attempts to bring Republican and Democratic governors on board. Since the president unveiled his pre-K initiative, Duncan has met with governors from Michigan, Minnesota, Virginia, New Mexico, Ohio, Alabama and Mississippi—all but Minnesota have Republicans as governors—to generate interest in giving the early education expansion the green light.

Duncan acknowledged many in Congress are loath to approve the proposed funding mechanism for the early education plan—a doubling of the tax on cigarettes to 94 cents a pack—but stressed that “you can’t reach the number of children we’re trying to reach without significant new investment.”

The secretary said he is open to other funding proposals, however.

 According to the secretary, states would be free to pursue their own early education proposals, telling reporters who took part in the online event that “we just want to invest where states are investing themselves” and “where states aren’t interested or don’t want to invest … we don’t need to go there.”  Duncan also said states that have received Early Learning Challenge grants through the federal Race to the Top program would not have an edge if the president’s plan were to be fully implemented.

 [See EWA's Story Starter on Early Childhood]

The secretary says the administration does not have a preference on any one delivery model; instead, Duncan says he supports a “mixed delivery system” in which school districts, churches, private providers, YMCAs, other non-profits participate in the roll out of the child care and preschool programs. “I’m less worried about competition than I am worried about the lack of opportunity that is so pervasive in so many of our communities,” Duncan said.

When asked what makes a good preschool program, Duncan cited a need for longitudinal studies that measure whether students are graduating high school in higher numbers, avoiding prison, dropping out at lower rates, and earning higher wages down the line. The secretary noted research done by Nobel laureate James Heckman that found much of the benefits young children gain from early childhood programs are non-cognitive, like improved social skills and the ability to self-manage.

[Watch this video of Nobel Laureate James Heckman discussing the research on early education at EWA’s National Seminar]

“I think we all know learning doesn’t begin when children are five. Learning begins at birth,” Duncan said. “Some people argue learning begins before birth, at prenatal. But to think that children shouldn’t have any kind of academic enrichment or socialization opportunities … children need to have the opportunity to learn early in life.”

Related: Read What a Leading State Early Ed Chief Said About the Administration’s Proposal

Press coverage from webinar

Politico: “’We’re open to other ideas if folks have them, but to be really clear, this is an investment,’ he said. ‘But you can’t reach the number of children we’re trying to reach without a significant new investment.’

“In the ‘real world’ outside of Washington, Duncan said Republican and Democratic governors alike are willing to make the necessary investments. He cited states he’s visited, like Virginia, Ohio, New Mexico, Alabama and Mississippi, where governors are on board despite tight budgets.”

Dallas Morning News: “The country’s top education official wants to dramatically increase the opportunity and access to quality pre-kindergarten as currently only about three in 10 4  year olds have access to such early childhood education programs.

“’They are literally behind before they even start,’ [Duncan] said. ‘We need to get out of the catch-up business.’”

Modesto Bee: “One of the most interesting notes from the Education Writers of America-sponsored event is that researchers increasingly see preschool as part of an age-3 to third grade span where kids have the best chance to change their stars.

“Laura Bornfreund of the New America Foundation said 120 studies over 50 years document the gains made by high-quality preschools. The fade in scores sometimes seen as Head Start grads move up the grades she believes may be from lower-quality education in low income neighborhoods.”

Albuquerque Journal: “He included New Mexico in a list of states with Republican governors who are taking preschool seriously. That was interesting to me, because Governor Susana Martinez has indeed increased preschool spending, but has also opposed efforts to tap the state’s land grant permanent fund for early childhood education. My colleague Jim Monteleone lays out the issue expertly here.

“The other piece that could be of local interest is a reporter’s question about how Hispanic families can be encouraged to take advantage of preschool, even if it is affordable and available. Nationwide, Hispanic families enroll in preschool at lower rates than other groups.”

Monterey Herald: “’For every dollar we invest, we get back seven,’ Duncan said, citing Heckman. ‘When you look at the tremendous unmet needs and the tremendous benefits, I would argue this is the best investment we can make.’

“But the idea has met harsh economic realities at the state and national level. California has slashed $1 billion in preschool programs since the economic downturn began in 2007, translating into the loss of more than 100,000 child care slots.”

Education Week: “Bobby Cagle, the commissioner of the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning, said in a web-based press conference today that the price tag of the Obama administration’s $75 billion proposal to expand the federal investment in state preschool programs will make it difficult for some lawmakers to back it.

“’We are supportive of the thinking behind the early learning initiative,’ said Cagle, whose state has a lottery-funded universal preschool program for 4-year-olds. ‘For our governor’—Republican Nathan Deal—‘it is a real challenge to begin talking about a new tax. From what we’re hearing from members of Congress, the real challenge is going to be the financing and where the money’s going to come from.’”

Daily Journal: “U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke highly of Mississippi’s early childhood education efforts on Wednesday during an Education Writer’s Association web panel about early education.”

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