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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, May 2 2014 - Volume 42 Issue 18
Will Republicans back early education?
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Will Republicans back early education?

by Senator Patty Murray - Special to the SGN

APRIL 22, 2014 - Before I ever gave much thought to running for political office, I taught preschool in a small community in my home state of Washington. I remember the first day with new students would always start the same way.

Some kids would not know how to hold a pencil or turn a page in a book. But over the first few months, they would start to catch on. They learned how to listen to a story and how to line up for recess. By the time they left for kindergarten, they had those basic skills and many more, so they could tackle a full curriculum in school.

Early learning gives kids a strong foundation - not just to start kindergarten ready to learn, but also to succeed later in life. Congressional Democrats have introduced a bill that would significantly expand access to early learning programs. Now, I'm challenging Republicans to join that effort.

Today, only 28 percent of American 4-year-olds are enrolled in state-funded pre-kindergarten, and access to quality programs varies widely from state to state. But although enrollment in preschool lags, support for early learning programs is nearly universal.

Researchers have found that early learning programs can dramatically improve a child's education attainment, employment and health. And high-quality, early learning programs can have a return on investment as high as 12 percent.

When I've talked to sheriffs in my state, they tell me that the young people they bring into the police station might have chosen a better path in life if they had a stronger start in school. Last year, a nonprofit group of more than 5,000 law enforcement officials and district attorneys urged Congress to expand early learning as a way to reduce crime and 'steer millions of children toward successful lives.'

Military leaders also have stressed the importance of early learning investments. Today, one in five high school graduates who try to join the Army cannot meet the minimum requirements, according to Mission: Readiness, a nonprofit group of retired military leaders. 'How we prepare our youngest kids to learn and succeed has a profound impact on our military readiness,' retired U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Douglas Pierce said at a recent Senate hearing.

Business leaders and groups like the Chamber of Commerce also support early childhood education because those investments will lead to a stronger, better-educated workforce.

Preschool shouldn't be a partisan issue, and, thankfully, across the country, it isn't. State lawmakers see early learning as a wise investment. Alabama, Kansas and Michigan - states with Republican governors and Republican-controlled state legislatures - have recently made stronger investments in early learning.

Law enforcement, military leaders, business groups and state lawmakers all recognize the importance of preschool. Unfortunately, one of the few places we're not seeing strong support for early learning is from Republicans in Congress.

The 'Strong Start for America's Children Act,' a bill Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) has introduced, would expand access to early learning programs across the country and help states accelerate efforts to provide high-quality preschool programs. But not a single Senate Republican has joined onto that bill. Representatives George Miller (D-Calif.) and Richard Hanna (R-N.Y.) have introduced the House version of the bill. But just two other House Republicans have co-sponsored it. The heart of this legislation is about investing in our children's potential and the future of our country. It deserves stronger bipartisan support.

So I'm issuing a challenge to Republicans. As they travel across their home states and districts, Republicans should talk to groups like local military leaders and police officers. They should listen to educators and business leaders on the importance of early learning.

I'm hopeful that more Republicans, after listening to these stakeholders, will sign on to our bill to expand preschool. And, when we return from this recess, I'll be ready to work with them on their ideas for improving this legislation. On the other hand, if members come back to D.C. still unable to support this bill, they should have to explain why educators, business leaders, military officers and law enforcement are wrong on the importance of early learning.

As a former preschool teacher, I saw firsthand the kind of transformation that early learning can inspire in a child. It's something I've never forgotten. On my last day of teaching preschool, before I left to serve in the Washington state Senate, my students presented me with a large quilt. Each square was made by a student in my class. That quilt now hangs in my U.S. Senate office. It reminds me everyday that investing in young children is one of the most important things we can do.

Every child in America deserves the opportunity to get a strong start for their future and for the future of our country. It's time Congress finally recognized that and supported expanding preschool for more young learners.

Patty Murray is the senior U.S. senator from Washington state, Senate budget chair and member of the Democratic Party.

Read more: http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/04/early-learning-initiative-gives-kids-a-strong-start-105920_Page2.html#ixzz2zv2q10qZ

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