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Hillary Clinton Champions Early-Childhood Education in New Campaign

By Alyson Klein — October 08, 2013 2 min read
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Flashforward to 2016

An Education Week headline reads: “Democratic Presidential Nominee Hillary Clinton Makes Early-Childhood Education Campaign Centerpiece”

Okay, fine, we don’t really have a crystal ball here at Politics K-12. And it’s an open question whether the former first-lady-turned-senator-turned-secretary-of-state is even running for president. (Plus, you know, we’ve still got three years of the Obama administration left.) But it’s hard to deny that since leaving the Obama administration, Clinton has turned back to a longheld interest of hers: early-childhood education.

The latest effort? Back in June, the Clinton Foundation (a.k.a. the “Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation”) announced it was collaborating with Next Generation, a nonpartisan strategic policy and communications organization, to launch “Too Small to Fail,” a new initiative to improve the health and well-being of children ages zero to five. Too Small to Fail is headed up by Ann O’Leary, a former Clinton White House aide and Clinton legislative director—and the wife of Goodwin Liu, a judge who has some pretty interesting education policy ties of his own.

Hillary Clinton recently wrote an op-ed for Too Small to Fail’s website. The letter goes over well-trodden territory, explaining that kids from disadvantaged families begin school already behind their more advantaged peers:

We know that children build their vocabulary by listening to and interacting with their parents and caregivers. But millions of American parents, especially those struggling to make ends meet or without strong support networks, end up talking and reading to their babies much less frequently than in more affluent families. Many parents just don't have time, between multiple jobs and significant economic pressures, or don't realize how important this really is. Studies have found that by age four, children in middle and upper class families hear 15 million more words than children in working-class families, and 30 million more words than children in families on welfare. This disparity in hearing words from parents and caregivers translates directly into a disparity in learning words. And that puts our children born with the fewest advantages even further behind. Among those born in 2001, only 48 percent of poor children started school ready to learn, compared to 75 percent of children from middle-income families.

The letter doesn’t lay out any earth-shattering policy initiatives—instead it focuses on more-targeted, practical solutions. Too Small to Fail will start a public outreach campaign to help parents become more aware of what Clinton calls “the word gap” and push businesses to allow parents to work more flexible schedules. She doesn’t explicitly endorse President Barack Obama’s early-childhood expansion plan. Nice analysis of the letter from the Huffington Post’s Joy Resmovits.

Early-childhood education isn’t a new area of interest for Clinton. Early in her career, she worked at the Children’s Defense Fund, which advocates for early-childhood education (among other policies). During her 2008 bid for the White House, Clinton’s education platform also put an emphasis on the littlest learners. (She spoke about it when she addressed the National Education Association way back in July of 2007, for instance.)

So what’s happening on Obama’s early-childhood education plan? Of course, Obama has his own multi-year, multi-billion proposal to expand prekindergarten, as well as programs for younger children (such as expanded home-visiting). But that seems unlikely to go anywhere in a Congress bent on trimming spending.

Still, the plan continues to have its champions: Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate education committee, announced at the Committee for Education Funding’s annual gala that expanding preschool is his top priority during his final term in Congress, and that he’ll be introducing a bill based on the president’s proposal soon. Just a few weeks ago, Harkin told me he was still looking for a GOP lawmaker to co-sponsor the legislation—which could be tough sledding if it truly is similar to the president’s plan.

Image: Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton addresses the 51st Delta Sigma Theta National Convention this summer in Washington. —Cliff Owen/AP

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