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U.S. Education Secretary Says ESEA Should Expand Focus to Early Learning

Alexandria, Va.

The Elementary and Secondary Education Act should expand beyond its current focus on K-12 schooling and encompass earlier learning, said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan during a Wednesday visit to an elementary school here that also includes nine preschool classrooms.

The details for how to achieve that goal, he said, are up to the leaders of the U.S. Senate education committee, who are currently working on a bill to reauthorize the ESEA. "But what I don't want is just to have an 'elementary and secondary education act,' " he said. That means "making sure that the nation understands that learning starts at birth, making sure we're investing, making sure that more children have access from [ages] zero to 3, home visiting, Early Head Start and Head Start, and pre-K. We just have to move from where we were a couple of decades ago." 

Duncan's statement at Patrick Henry Elementary School was made in response to a question about whether he would like to see a new preschool title added to the education law, the current version of which is the No Child Left Behind Act. He did not specifically call for that action, but a coalition of advocacy organizations is working towards that goal. 

That group, which includes the liberal Center for American Progress, the National Association of Elementary School Principals, both national teachers' unions, and others, announced last week that it would be calling on Congress to outline expanded preschool services and full-day kindergarten as part of a ESEA reauthorization. Under the proposal, the new title would provide $27 billion in funding over the next 10 years to achieve those goals by closing two corporate tax loopholes.

The title would be called "Strong Start for America's Children," which hews closely to the title of  legislation proposed in 2014 that would have stood on its own and done roughly the same thing. That legislation never passed. 

States would get a 10 percent matching grant form the federal government to expand their preschool programs, similar, though less generous, than what was first proposed in President Barack Obama's 2014 budget. Programs would have to meet federal quality standards to receive the funds. The list of proposed standards is almost exactly the same as the list included in the now-defunct "Strong Start" bill: Lead teachers would have to have bachelor's degrees and be paid on par with K-12 teachers; adult-to-child ratios would be 1:10 or less: and the program would have to be full-day and full-year, among other requirements. More and better care for children under 4 years old, and full-day kindergarten are also called for. 

During Duncan's elementary school visit Wednesday, he called attention to the lengthy waiting list for preschool slots in many school districts around the country. 

"For kids and families who want their children to have access to high-quality early-learning opportunities, we should make that available," Duncan said. "I just want folks in Congress to look at the real world." 

Staff Writer Christina A. Samuels contributed to this report. 

 

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