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Arne Duncan Makes Pitch to Expand Early-Childhood Education

By Alyson Klein — April 29, 2013 4 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says he thinks the time has come for a sweeping expansion of early-childhood education programs, like the one that President Barack Obama outlined in his State of the Union speech. And he’s hoping to get as many states as possible on board.

“The average child from a disadvantaged country comes to school a year to a year and half behind,” Duncan told reporters during a round table discussion Monday in which he made a sales pitch for the program, which faces long odds on Capitol Hill in an austere federal budget year. “Politicians are used to thinking short term. This is the ultimate long-term play.”

The details of the administration’s early-childhood education expansion are largely in its most recent budget request to Congress. But Duncan reiterated some of them anyway, noting that the program would call for a state match of roughly 10 percent in the first year, eventually increasing to 75 percent. He said the program would focus first on the neediest children—those whose parents make below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. If states want to serve more moderate-income children, they would get their match reduced.

In order to participate in the program, states’ prekindergarten programs would already have to meet certain criteria. For instance, they would have to have early-learning standards (every state has them) and be able to link prekindergarten data with K-12 systems (about 33 states can do that right now, department officials estimated). They would have to have some sort of plan in their application for prekindergarten assessments, although they would not have to actually have them implemented. And they’d have to have program standards in place for kindergarten (at least 39 do). States would also have to have standards for teacher quality.

So how many states meet this high bar? Administration officials couldn’t say for sure. And, in an earlier interview on the program, then-assistant Secretary Carmel Martin told reporters that the budget numbers assumed that not every state would be ready to go in the first year. Duncan also added that the budget request includes an additional $750 million to help states get their programs up to snuff.

Once states accept the money, they would have to use it to offer programs that meet a certain quality benchmark. The programs would have to be full-day, and teachers would have to hold a bachelor’s degree. And states would have to keep class sizes reasonable, possibly one teacher to every ten students.

“One of the objectives of this is that we want this to be a 50-state program, and we want as many states as possible to be eligible to come in the door,” Chrisanne Gayl, a senior policy consultant in the Office of planning, evaluation and policy development who works on early learning said at the roundtable. “When states would use this money, they would have to use it to implement” high quality programs.

The programs could be administered through school districts, community child-care centers, and other organizations.

The initiative would also include $15 billion over 10 years to expand home visiting service programs for parents of at-risk babies. But, even if Congress signs off on the administration’s ideas, that money wouldn’t be available until fiscal year 2015, which doesn’t start until Oct. 1 of 2014.

The details of the program are open to negotiation on Capitol Hill, Duncan said. But he believes the state match is critical.

What about districts that might be interested in participating even though their state might be reticent? Duncan said that the department would prefer to work with states first, and then see where things look like from there.

The administration has proposed financing the expansion—which carries a $75 billion price tag over the next 10 years—by raising taxes on tobacco products. Duncan said he thinks that’s a win-win, since a higher price for tobacco might discourage teenagers and others from taking up smoking to begin with. But he added that he’s open to other ideas for financing the program. (The tobacco lobby has called the cigarette tax idea regressive and unfair.)

“If someone has a better pay-for, we’re all ears,” Duncan said, although he added that he thinks cigarette taxes would help maintain a solid revenue stream for the program for years to come.

Of course, the entire program hinges on congressional action—and even Duncan admits that “Congress is clearly difficult these days.” But he added that many Republican governors, including in Alabama, Georgia, and Michigan, have favored boosting prekindergarten in their states. “Outside of Washington’s craziness, in the real world, this has become a very bipartisan issue which is hugely encouraging to me,” he said. Republicans in Congress, meanwhile, have been much more skeptical of the idea, particularly given the current tight budget situation.

Still, Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate education committee, ideally would like to add the preschool expansion onto the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. I asked Duncan whether he liked that idea.

“We’re having good early conversations on ESEA reauthorizations,” he said, noting that he’s met with Harkin and the committee’s top Republican, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., two or three times in the past couple of weeks to discuss renewing the law. “Senator Harkin has always been interested in [early childhood education]. I think is a really interesting continuum, that’s obviously how we see the world.”