Democrats Stress Early-Childhood Education

By Linda Jacobson — August 17, 2000 3 min read

The task of educating the nation’s youngest children—those who aren’t even old enough for public schools—has received considerable attention this week at the Democratic National Convention.

This morning, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., U.S. Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, and the actor-director Rob Reiner gathered at a “Campaign for Literacy” at Los Angeles’ Hope Street Family Center, which offers Early Head Start for infants and toddlers and a range of other programs for children and families.

“There is no greater thing that we will do to strengthen the fabric of our country than to make sure our children are healthy and enter school ready to learn,” said Mr. Reiner, who has become a strong advocate for early-childhood education and was instrumental in getting California voters to approve Proposition 10. That 1998 ballot measure enacted a 50-cent tax on tobacco products, with revenues earmarked for improving child-care quality and for aiding other statewide and county-level programs that serve children from birth through age 5. Mr. Reiner also serves as the chairman of the state Children and Families Commission.

“The kinds of things being done here are exactly the kinds of things we want to do with our Prop 10 dollars,” Mr. Reiner said.

The Campaign for Literacy—sponsored by the student-loan provider Sallie Mae—sought to inspire convention delegates to donate at least 2,000 books to the Hope Street Family Center. A similar campaign was conducted earlier this month in Philadelphia during the Republican National Convention, where about 1,500 books were donated.

“When I talk to parents, I tell them, ‘Read with your children. Read to your children,’ ” Secretary Riley said. “Read, read, read.”

Mr. Kennedy, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, took time this morning to tell a story to local elementary school children in attendance.

And he brought them a gift—copies of President John F. Kennedy’s favorite children’s book.

“I had a brother who was president, and he liked to read, and his favorite book was Billy Whiskers,” Sen. Kennedy told the children.

Universal Preschool “Critical”

This week’s focus on early-childhood education is not surprising, given that Vice President Al Gore—the party’s nominee for president—has made establishing nationwide voluntary universal preschool one of his campaign planks.

“It would be by far the biggest investment in early childhood,” said Mike Brogioli, the director of outreach and public policy for I Am Your Child, a public-engagement campaign started by Mr. Reiner. “Now, we have to get the resources.”

Earlier this week, while participating in an education forum sponsored by the centrist Democratic Leadership Council and the Democratic Governors’ Association, New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen said she believes Mr. Gore’s plan will be a pivotal issue in his campaign against Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican candidate for president.

“Making sure that all young children have that support before they start school is critical if we’re ever going to do what we want to do,” said Ms. Shaheen, who is focusing on early-childhood education as the current chairwoman of the Education Commission of the States.

Mr. Gore’s plan to create a voluntary preschool program for 3- and 4-year-olds, which would be paid for with $50 billion from the federal budget surplus, is part of a larger package of proposals that also includes expanding Head Start to serve 1 million children by 2002 and establishing a $3 billion “early-learning fund” that would be used to improve the quality of child care and early-childhood education.

Gov. Bush, meanwhile, has said that he wants to reshape Head Start, which now offers a comprehensive range of health and education services and is run through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The GOP nominee has said he wants to emphasize the early-learning aspects of the program and move it under the U.S. Department of Education’s supervision.

Many of Mr. Gore’s ideas build on ones that President Clinton has proposed, but that have yet to be enacted.

During her convention address on Monday night, however, first lady and U.S. Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton cited the Clinton-Gore administration’s accomplishments on behalf of children.

“More children lifted out of poverty,” Mrs. Clinton said. “More children receiving Head Start, child care, and after-school care. More children than ever getting immunized against disease. More children whose parents can take family and medical leave to care for them. And more neglected and abused foster children being adopted into loving, permanent families.”