ERIE- Second stop for Secretary Duncan on the 2011 “Education and the Economy” bus tour: the Early Connections pre-K Learning Center. Here the Secretary participated in a roundtable discussion about early childhood education with Senator Bob Casey, Pennsylvania state educators, parents and business leaders, along with Duncan’s Senior Advisor on Early Learning Jacqueline Jones, and Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services Alexa Posny.
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It began with a quick classroom observation, where in teacher Meghan Haskins’s class, Secretary Duncan’s visit competed for the attention of youngsters with building blocks, crayons, and crafts.
Next, Secretary Duncan joined a capacity crowd in another classroom, sitting with other panel participants at a U-shaped table. Though the classroom was designed for a pint-sized audience, Senator Casey – participating via Skype – introduced Secretary Duncan with a very adult rationale for investing in early childhood education.
The investment, Senator Casey said, “is important so every child can shine to the full measure of their potential. The return on investment is irrefutable, from a low estimate of a $3 return for every dollar spent, to estimates as high as $17 for every dollar invested. Whatever the number, it’s a great return.”
Secretary Duncan praised Senator Casey’s commitment to early childhood education as a way to avoid cascading achievement problems further down the line. “I’m tired of playing catch-up,” Duncan said. “You have colleges blaming high schools when kids aren’t ready: high schools blaming middle schools, middle schools blaming elementaries. There’s nothing more important we can do to get our babies off to a great start. If we can get our three, four and five-year-olds ready for kindergarten, so many of these challenges go away.”
One by one, the participants around the table spoke to the importance of real commitment to quality early childhood education.
Jacqueline Jones agreed with the consensus, highlighting the Department’s $500 million commitment made with the Department of Health and Human Services. She confirmed that their new Race to the Top–Early Learning Challenge grant program offers funding that will increase access to quality early childhood education. “We’re doing everything we can,” Jones said, “to try to make your job easier, and to make sure that teachers and classrooms have what they need, but most of all that children have what they need.”