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White House Kicks Off Summit on Early-Childhood Education

Early-childhood education is a bipartisan issue across the country, but the federal government can't seem to match that momentum, mostly thanks to Republican opposition in Congress, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said at the first White House summit on early-childhood education Wednesday.

"To my great joy, this has really become a bipartisan issue at the local and state level," Duncan said at the White House event, which was live-streamed here. He noted that "very conservative states," including New Mexico, Nevada, and Alabama, were excited to receive a share of $250 million in new Preschool Development Grants, which were announced Wednesday morning and are intended to help states expand and improve their early-childhood offerings. Congress recently included funding for a second year of the program in a giant spending bill slated for passage this week

Duncan added, "Candidly, we've struggled here in Washington. Candidly [there's] sort of like a handful of Republicans at the national level who have said this is the right thing to do."  

And Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to President Barack Obama, also hit on the same theme, noting that the president asked Congress for a major new multi-billion initiative in his 2013 State of the Union address.

"As may not be a surprise to you, Congress didn't act," she said. So the administration decided to "travel around to cities and states and find coalitions of the willing."

She applauded new philanthropic investments also announced Wednesday that she says align with the Obama administration's early-childhood goals, They include $5 million over five years from the J.B. and M.K. Pritzker Family Foundation to grow evidence-based early-childhood programs; $20 million from The Kresge Foundation for early education in Detroit; and $15 million from Susan A. Buffett and Partners to expand early-education programs in Omaha, Neb. The Walt Disney Company also kicked in $55 million in new books and other educational materials to non-profits around the country. 

There's more federal money on the table, too. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will award $500 million in Early Head Start grants Wednesday. 

But U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., who spoke later at the summit, noted that there has been some GOP support of early-childhood issues. He was able to get a couple of Republicans to co-sponsor a bill that would have enacted the president's broad early-education initiative, for instance, he said. Plus, a number of Republicans told him that they would vote for the measure if it ever made it to the floor of the House.

And, Miller said, there was a time when both parties were able to work together on early-childhood education, even to the point of Democrats working with the Reagan administration on Head Start funding when the GOP was looking to trim spending in the 1980s. That early-childhood education program became, he said, "Ron and Nancy's favorite program." 

"Today I think we're there again, with this incredible cascade of research in the education community" on the difference early-childhood education can make, Miller said. "We've got to leave this meeting and understand the importance of taking advantage of this atmosphere."

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