WASHINGTON, D.C. | March 17, 2009
We’re here today to examine the importance of early childhood development, a topic that is getting a lot of attention these days, and rightly so.
A child’s first years are among the most critical in laying the foundation for future learning. Cognitive development, social interaction, and so many other areas of early learning play an important role as a child prepares to enter school.
While governments have traditionally played a central role in K-12 education, the pre-K years have always been the domain of parents. There are numerous early childhood programs available, both public and private, from center-based child care to school-based settings with an academic focus. Although states have increasingly become involved with pre-K initiatives, the federal government has largely refrained from inserting itself into the day-to-day operation of such programs.
Of course, there is one notable exception. Since 1965, the federal government has been involved in early childhood education through the Head Start program, which includes Early Head Start.
Head Start was created to serve disadvantaged children, recognizing that when children start behind, they tend to stay behind. To help correct what we call the “readiness gap” between disadvantaged children and their higher-income peers, the Head Start program combines comprehensive health and development services with an academic focus on pre-reading and pre-math skills. By emphasizing school readiness, the Head Start program is intended to narrow the readiness gap and avoid the achievement gaps that have plagued our nation’s schools.
I think the federal government has been right to focus our resources on disadvantaged children and their families. Like it or not, we have to make choices with the federal budget. And when it comes to setting priorities for early childhood education, I think our priority should be the children who we know are at risk of falling behind.
The No Child Left Behind Act was about erasing achievement gaps between disadvantaged children and their peers. But we will never be able to accomplish that goal if children enter school already having fallen behind.
I know President Obama has spoken a great deal about the importance of early childhood education, and I look forward to hearing more of his ideas about what we can do in this area.
As I approach this debate, I will keep three guiding principles in mind. First, I believe that parents must remain in control of early childhood care and education. Second, I believe that we must retain our focus on low-income children. And third, I believe we must be mindful of taxpayer resources.
In 2000, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report on federal involvement in early care and education programs. The study found that in fiscal year 1999, nine different federal agencies administered a total of 69 different federal programs that provided or supported early education and care for children under age five.
I mention this because I understand that there are proposals to create yet another federal early childhood program. In fact, we marked up a bill that would do exactly that during the last Congress. I think it would be a real mistake to simply layer on an additional program, particularly when there are so many programs, and so much is already being spent, for the same purpose.
We have learned a lot in recent years, and we continue to learn more all the time, about how children’s brains develop and how learning actually happens. It’s an important area of study for both parents and policymakers, and I look forward to continuing our work.