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Sec. Duncan Promotes Early-Ed. Expansion During San Francisco Visit

San Francisco

The Yerba Buena Gardens Child Development Center was buzzing minutes before a visit from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan on Monday.

After informing a reporter that the primary purpose of preschool was playing, a small scrum of 3-year-olds explained why "Mr. Duncan" was an important visitor: "He works at Mr. Obama's house."

Duncan_SF.jpgDuncan has been traversing the country for nearly two years now promoting an expansion of public preschool, one of "Mr. Obama's" major education policy priorities.

"This is an idea whose time has come," he told reporters gathered at the downtown San Francisco center. "It's just an ultimate triumph of common sense."

After checking in on some necklace-making in the courtyard, Duncan folded his lanky frame into a tiny chair to talk with a girl about her painting. There was a long discussion of how wet or dry it was, then an extended exchange about who would be taking it home, the girl or Duncan. The education secretary seemed keen to acquire the work, which featured splashes of purple and red watercolor accented with black crayon, but the young artist was a tough negotiator. In the end, it seemed she might be willing to share, but hadn't made up her mind entirely.

Art, free play, and social interactions are just some of the benefits preschool advocates tout as critical for school readiness. Yet most states, including California, do not fund public preschool on the same scale as K-12.

Sixty percent of children at the Yerba Buena Center qualify for some form of government subsidy. But even with money coming in from city, county and state sources, the center's director, Noushin Mofakham, says it's not enough to cover costs.

"I wish that there was a way that the discrepancy between the cost and what the state pays gets smaller," Mofakham said.

California recently increased the amount it spends on early-childhood education, but the increase was relatively small compared to the years of decreases that preceded it. And even aside from the question of whether or not the subsidies for students are large enough to provide them with a high-quality education, California's state preschool program does not provide subsidies for every student in the state who qualifies based on family income.

Last week, the state joined more than 30 others in applying for federal preschool development grants to expand and improve public preschool programs. Duncan said Monday that only a few (six to nine) of the proposals the U.S. Department of Education received will get funded. 

"That's the challenge," he said. "There will be so many more great states that we want to fund than we have dollars available."

While in San Francisco, Sec. Duncan also visited Philip & Sala Burton High School to observe an engineering class and Roosevelt Middle School to discuss the transition to Common Core State Standards. He heads to Los Angeles on Tuesday.

(Photo: A student at the Yerba Buena Gardens Child Development Center selects a bead from the handful proffered by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. --Lillian Mongeau for Education Week)

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