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Cabinet secretaries back more federal aid for pre-school

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: A White House proposal to increase spending on pre-school would mean 5,900 children in Missouri and 12,000 in Illinois could get a jump start on their education – a benefit that Education Secretary Arne Duncan calls a return on investment the nation cannot ignore.

In St. Louis Thursday for the national meeting of the Education Commission of the States, Duncan and Kathleen Sebelius, secretary of health and human services, said that too few young children from needy families are in high-quality pre-school programs.

As a result, they said, they begin kindergarten already behind their peers who have been in pre-school; and they may never reach the educational level they need to help themselves and the nation compete.

“We must get our schools once and for all out of what I call the catch-up business,” Duncan said, adding:

“The path to middle class leads straight through our nation’s classrooms.”

Sebelius said that waiting for children to reach kindergarten age before they begin formal education is waiting too long.

“You can’t start at age 5,” she said, “when we have already condemned too many children to failure.”

She noted that spending more on pre-school has broader benefits than just academic, citing social and emotional gains as well.

“The payoff isn’t just in test scores and graduation rates,” Sebelius said.

Under the plan announced by President Barack Obama in his State of the Union address in February, states would share in $75 billion in federal funds, adding a 10 percent local match, so that every 4-year-old would be able to take part in a high-quality pre-school program.

The money would be used to help children from families earning up to 200 percent of the federal poverty line.

For Missouri, that would mean $48.3 million, with a $4.8 million state match; Illinois would receive $102.3 million, with a state match of $10.2 million.

Citing figures that show a sevenfold return for each dollar spent on early childhood education, Duncan said the spending not only increases a student’s success later on in school but leads to less spending on social services, better health, better jobs and a reduction in crime.

That kind of spending, he said, provides “the best bang for our educational buck.”

Sebelius said the money would come from an increase in the federal tobacco tax, so it would not add to the deficit but would not only increase pre-school participation but would contribute to fewer young people starting to smoke.

Calling the plan a “win-win situation,” she said that studies show when the price of tobacco products goes up, fewer young people take up smoking.”

Duncan noted that as far back as 1971, Congress passed a bill providing free early learning classes for low-income children, but President Richard Nixon vetoed it. Since that time, he said, the United States has fallen behind other nations in spending for such programs as a percentage of gross domestic product.

From that perspective, he said, the failure to fund pre-school programs is “just plain dumb.”

In his speech, and meeting with reporters afterward, Duncan said the money would not be a new federal entitlement program. States would choose to take part, just as they could choose to get involved with other federal education programs such as Race to the Top.

This would not be a competition, he added, but Washington would keep a close eye on whether goals are met, though states would be free to decide the programs that would be used in schools.

He noted that a broad coalition of business leaders and others have backed the pre-school proposal.

“These business leaders are not engaged in some kind of feel-good philanthropy,” he said. “That’s simply not the way that they think. CEOs love early learning because they fundamentally understand what return on investment means.”

Duncan noted that governors have taken the lead in providing wider access to early-childhood programs, but the money from the federal government could help expand things even more. The children deserve no less, he said, and he urged his audience to work hard to have the program succeed.

“We cannot let the perfect become the enemy of the good, as too often happens in Washington,” he said.

“Children don’t have lobbyists. They don’t have PACs, they don’t make campaign contributions and they don’t vote.”

Duncan told reporters after his speech that he sees some progress being made on efforts to prevent rates on federal student loans from doubling on Monday.

“People are working really hard,” he said. “I remain hopeful that things will be resolved. People understand this is the right thing to do for students and four our country.”

But later on Thursday, senators said that no vote on the issue is scheduled before Monday, though a bill that would lower rates retroactively could be voted on when lawmakers return from their July 4 recess.

And he repeated a call from earlier this week to separate fact from fiction in the ongoing debate over the Common Core State Standards.

He said the standards are totally voluntary, and “states could walk away tomorrow.”

But he said that by judging students in more rigorous ways, they will have a truer picture of how well they are doing in comparison with their peers worldwide.

“To tell them they are doing well when they are not,” he said, “is a very, very, very damaging thing to do to our students.

“When you are dumbing down standards to make politicians look good, that is one of the most insidious things we can do.”

Dale Singer began his career in professional journalism in 1969 by talking his way into a summer vacation replacement job at the now-defunct United Press International bureau in St. Louis; he later joined UPI full-time in 1972. Eight years later, he moved to the Post-Dispatch, where for the next 28-plus years he was a business reporter and editor, a Metro reporter specializing in education, assistant editor of the Editorial Page for 10 years and finally news editor of the newspaper's website. In September of 2008, he joined the staff of the Beacon, where he reported primarily on education. In addition to practicing journalism, Dale has been an adjunct professor at University College at Washington U. He and his wife live in west St. Louis County with their spoiled Bichon, Teddy. They have two adult daughters, who have followed them into the word business as a communications manager and a website editor, and three grandchildren. Dale reported for St. Louis Public Radio from 2013 to 2016.

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