Duncan Moved Early-Education Policy Forward, Advocates Say

By Christina A. Samuels — October 02, 2015 2 min read
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The Obama administration, under the leadership of resigning Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, moved early education past vague conversations and into concrete policy, said supporters of increased public investment in early learning.

Duncan announced Friday that he plans to step down in December, turning the department reins over to John King, who is the former commissioner of education in New York.

Duncan managed to work early education into most speeches, repeating the administration’s call for an investment in high-quality prekindergarten. The day his resignation hit the news, he visited a Virginia pre-K class to drum up support for the administration’s preschool development grants. About $250 million has been distributed to 18 states to help them launch or expand their state-run prekindergarten programs. However, the spending bills currently pending in the House and the Senate do not continue funding for the grant program.

“There’s all the science around brain development that has come out, and the pubilc was beginning to understand,” said Bruce Lesley, the president of First Focus, an advocacy organization for children and families. “But raising awareness is not action.”

Duncan, said Lesley, pushed beyond just telling people that early-childhood education is important. “He said, here is a policy agenda that needs to be enacted.”

One policy agenda of the administration was a proposed $75 billion federal investment that would help jump-start or expand state pre-K programs. That has not happened, but the administration was able to use stimulus funds to expand enrollment in Head Start and to fund the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grants. That grant program parceled over $1 billion to 20 states. Another $15 million was awarded to states to help them develop kindergarten-entry assessments, which teachers use to measure children’s academic readiness when they start school.

“His advocacy and stamina in promoting the need for more investment in early education was unprecedented,” said Kris Perry, the executive director of the First Five Years Fund. The Department of Education has not traditionally spent money in the early-childhood arena.

Perry has traveled with King and heard him speak to the administration’s commitment to early learning, so she hopes that he will continue the work that Duncan started—especially as Congress continues its work to pass a revision of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Early-childhood proponents have seen that bill as a vehicle to advance federal involvement in early learning.

“I think when someone with [Duncan’s] profile is saying I believe strongly in this, it carries more weight, and i think John King has the abiltiy to do just that.”

Photo:Secretary of Education Arne Duncan visits with young student Mario Corona, age 6, in kindergarten at McGlone Elementary School in the Montbello section of Denver in May, 2015.—Brennan Linsley/AP-File

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.