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Strong Parent-Engagement Plans Will Give States Edge in Newest Pre-K Competition

Photo: Using an iPad, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan reads "Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed" to students at the Chambliss Center for Children on Tuesday in Chattanooga, Tenn, during his bus tour. —Photo by Lauren Camera

Chattanooga, Tenn.

States applying for the newest federal early-learning grant competition will be more likely to clinch the federal funds if the proposals include a strong parent-engagement component, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Tuesday.

"Great and effective early-learning programs are always very intentional and very strategic in how they engage parents," Duncan said during a stop at an early-learning center here during his annual back-to-school bus tour. "We would only look to invest in places that are very serious, strategic, and intentional about bringing parents in and helping them become the best parents they can be for their children."

Duncan's remarks came at the Chambliss Center for Children in Chattanooga, a unique operation that helps parents who are working or in school and is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year.

Last year, President Barack Obama called on states to offer universal preschool for all low- and middle-income families, and it's remained one of the administration's top priorities since.

"We know when we don't have access to high-quality pre-K and early learning, kids start kindergarten a year to 18 months behind," Duncan said Tuesday. "That's not fair to the kids, that's not fair to the teacher, and that's not fair to that family."

"To be quite honest, in education we don't do a fantastic job of catching those kids up," he continued. "I can draw a direct line to those [that] don't have access to quality early learning and those that drop out."

Since Congress balked at the administration's $75 billion matching grant proposal, Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grants have been the only way that the White House has been able to influence state early-education policy.

But the newest $250 million early-learning grant, which Congress approved in its latest round of funding, provides a little more pull.

As my colleague, Alyson Klein, pointed out this spring, the administration plans to offer two different types of grants with the new money: It will run one "development" grant competition for states that don't already have a robust early-childhood education program or haven't already won a Race to the Top early-learning grant. The other competition will offer "expansion" grants to states that already have successful preschool programs, or have already received a Race to the Top early-learning grant.

State applications are due in October, and you can read more about the specifics of the grant here.

At the Chambliss Center, Duncan underscored the urgency of expanding access to early-learning centers.

"There is not a state I go to that does not have a wait list of families trying to do the right thing for their kids," he said.

There is currently a 250-child wait list at Chambliss.

When asked what the public can do to prod Congress to fund more preschool grants, Duncan said that pressure from parents is key.

"Parents' voices have to be heard on this," he said. "Having parents talk about the need, talk about the demand, it's imperative."

The education secretary said he felt more hopeful about achieving that goal than ever before, given the diverse group of stakeholders coalescing around the issue, including Republican governors, who Duncan said have been at the forefront of the early-education push.

"This is a triumph of common sense," Duncan said. "It should have nothing to do with politics, Republican, Democrat. As a nation we need to get our babies off to a great start."

Duncan also underscored the economic value of early-education programs, citing research by Nobel Prize winner James Heckman from the University of Chicago, whose longitudinal study shows a 7-to-1 return on investment for preschool.

"That's teenage pregnancy, that's crime, that's dropouts," Duncan said. "And I wonder, out of all the public dollars we spend, how many times do we get back $7 for a dollar we invest."

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