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States Urged by Arne Duncan to Take Lead in Early Education Push

St. Louis

State leaders and business executives are making the right move to spend more resources on and pay more attention to early-childhood education, even as Congress twiddles its thumbs, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a June 27 speech at the Education Commission of the States' National Policy Forum here.

Sharing the state with U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, Duncan highlighted President Barack Obama's plan to provide $75 billion on a voluntary basis to interested states to improve their early-education programs and provide more slots for children, through an increase in the federal tobacco tax. At the same time, he acknowledged that official Washington seemed unlikely to act on any such proposal.

In contrast, he told the audience—state leaders across the country on a bipartisan basis, from Michigan and Georgia to Minnesota—have shared the president's enthusiasm for providing greater access to "high quality" education for the youngest children. He urged them to continue their work despite the still-difficult budget climate. Right now, he noted, Slovenia and Chile spend more of their GDP, proportionally, than the U.S. on early learning.

Putting resources into early-childhood education is, Duncan said, "The best investment in education that we as a nation can make."

Earlier this week, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington state, discussed her plan to introduce a bill mirroring Obama's early-education proposal, but ever since the president introduced the idea in his 2013 State of the Union speech, the political prospects for the plan have been dim and have not significantly improved. This lack of action, Duncan explained, had motivated him and Sebelius to tour the country promoting the concept so that state lawmakers could act on their own. At the same time, he stressed that states would not be required to apply for or use the $75 billion if it became available.

While Duncan is right that a broad group states, geographically and politically, have taken a new interest in early-education programs, some GOP governors, like Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder and Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal, have felt the need to be careful about being identified too closely with the president's specific plan, even as they push early learning enthusiastically in their own states. That could also hinder the White House's plan moving ahead, although taken at his word Duncan would still be happy to see states act independently.

He also rattled off a list of ideas for improving early education that should not be tried, including diverting money from Head Start to pay for more early-education programs, and a new, expanded version of the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge. So anyone hoping for a new targeted, competitive grant in this education policy area will be disappointed, it seems.

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