Budgets should never just be numbers on a piece of paper; they reflect our values. As the Vice President often says, show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you actually value.
One thing we should all value is the high-quality early learning opportunities that are critical when it comes to helping students to succeed in school and ultimately in life. This is true for all of our young people, but especially, especially for those who come from low-income families and who also often start kindergarten between a year and 14 months behind their peers in pre-readings and language skills. So that means of the children who start school this fall, far too many are already a year to 14 months behind.
Unfortunately, the House and Senate are moving forward with partisan spending bills that cut several critically important investments that will support our country’s economic success and expand the opportunity for all, including our Preschool Development Grants. Right now, this grant is helping more than 200 high-need communities in 18 states to build and expand high-quality preschools. In fact, tens of thousands of additional children from low- and moderate-income families will start school in high-quality preschool programs this fall, thanks to these grants.
This week, the Administration released a Fact Sheet that shows by cutting this funding, as the spending bills currently do, Congress jeopardizes state and community plans to serve more than 100,000 additional children in high-quality preschools in the last two years of the grants. Real hard-working American families and their children would suffer. What we need is just a simple common sense approach to the budget, one that reflects the great work is already happening in states – red and blue, Republican and Democrat – across the nation to increase access to high-quality early learning.
Governors across the country, regardless of their party, are ready to join a partnership with the federal government, to invest more and provide high-quality preschool to children who need it and families who want it. President Obama’s proposal outlines how this can be done by calling for the expansion of preschool development grant to serve more than 350,000 additional children over four years.
These grants require a true partnership. Everyone must have skin in the game, with states and community organizations pledging additional matching funds on top of the federal grant, embodying the shared commitment needed to support our youngest learners. Under the President’s budget, states without Preschool Development Grants – states where there’s real need like Mississippi and Georgia and Ohio – could move forward with high-quality preschool.
Sadly, there remains a tremendous unmet need for high-quality preschool. Thirty-six states applied for the grant last year. Yet, we only have funds to support half of those proposals. But if we had the funding in place to award a grant to each state that applied, about 285,000 more preschoolers could have been served over four years.
Today, nationwide, less than half of our four-year-olds are enrolled in a publically-funded preschool program. This simply isn’t acceptable. We cannot succeed in a 21st-century globally competitive economy if we continue to short-change our students, particularly those who start out life in the most vulnerable situation. When it comes to ensuring that every child has an equal opportunity to succeed, we still have a long, long way to go. Investing in high-quality early learning would be a great start and a life-transforming experience.
Its right for our students, their families, and it’s right for our nation. States like New Jersey, Montana, Alabama and Hawaii are moving forward with more access to high-quality preschool and preparing our children for the future. It’s something that should and does concern all of us.
We simply cannot roll back on a progress we’ve made for our younger students, something the House and Senate budget would absolutely do. Instead, we must work together and forge ahead on our shared goal of equipping our babies with a world-class education starting with high-quality preschool.
Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education