Secretary Duncan on ‘Preschool for All’ at Denver townhall

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan spoke at a Denver townhall meeting, July 19, about a proposal to provide every four-year-old child with access to high-quality preschoool, while also incentivizing states to adopt full-day kindergarten policies.

President Obama is proposing a series of new investments that will establish a continuum of high-quality early learning for a child – beginning at birth and continuing to age five.

Duncan2Secretary Duncan told the audience at the Clayton Early Learning Campus that less then 30% of the nation’s four-year-olds have access to high-quality preschool programs, and as a result, children starting kindergarten in disadvantaged communities are typically more than a year behind in academic and social skills.

“We have to close what I call the ‘opportunity gap’. Our children, from every community, are as smart, as talented, as great as children anywhere. We just haven’t given them the chance to be successful,” said Duncan.

The Secretary was joined by a panel representing several segments of the Colorado community – business, military, faith, law enforcement – each explaining how investment in early childhood education is crucial from their perspective.

“From a business person’s perspective, to see the efficiency of the investment thorugh my involvement at the state and national level, I’ve seen many evidences of the power of investing in kids,” said Brad Busse, an investment banker and early childhood education advocate who sits on the state’s Early Childhood Leadership Commission. “The reason I’m involved in this is that I think investing in kids early is the best investment we can make.”

Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey said he’s been asked many time over a 30-year career how to best prevent crime, and found early childhood education is the best answer.

“We prevent crime by investing in kids. We prevent crimes by supporting (education) programs,” said Morrissey. “When you get into my system, the criminal justice system, it’s too late. We are the system of last resort…The system you work in (education) is a lot more cost-effective than the system I work in.”

question2Duncan and his fellow panlists took many questions from the audience, including one on “Colorado Commits to Kids”, the education funding ballot initiative that would raise Colorado’s investment in public education by nearly $1 billion. CEA members and other groups are gathering voter signatures to put the measure on the statewide ballot in November.

“It’s a big initiative here in the state. I desperately hope it moves forward. I think the implications for the state’s children, for the state’s ecomony, are huge,” said Duncan.

Busse added, “Hopefully the success that we have with the ballot initiative in Colorado will be something that will go to other states. It’s a great model. This isn’t just a Colorado (issue), but something that affects all Americans.”

The townhall was hosted by Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia at the Clayton Early Learning Campus in Denver. Garcia said in his introductory remarks, “What we need to really be thinking about is the ‘school readiness gap’, the fact that some of our kids show up more ready than others, more prepared to learn and be successful. So we really want to focus on, and talk about how we make sure everyone has that opportunity.”

Giving every young child that opportunity may come down to how we think of education funding, according to Duncan.

“Do we think of education as an investment, or do we think of education as an expense?” asked Duncan. “There’s a lot of folks I work with and respect, but just fundamentally disagree with in Congress, who think we should be cutting back in education – cutting back from early childhood, cutting back from K-12, cutting back the college PELL grants. I just think we cut off our nose to spite our face when we do that.

“I spend a lot of time looking at our international competitors – Singapore, South Korea, China, India – and they are investing very, very heavily in innovation, in education, in early childhood education,” added Duncan. “I just want our children to have a chance to compete on a level playing field.”

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