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Delaware Governor: Jack Markell

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We must invest in early education

Written on: September 10th, 2013 in Education

Delaware is one of many states investing in strengthening its education system by, among other things, implementing the Common Core standards. But the impact of all K-12 education policies will be limited unless students are prepared to learn on day one.

Despite positive rhetoric from leaders across the political spectrum, we are still not investing enough in early childhood education across the country. We just learned that policies in Washington have shut 57,000 children out of Head Start. We are moving in the wrong direction.

Those in Washington who fight additional investment have not considered the economic consequences of failing to act. When some Congressional Republicans say that “throwing more money into the nation’s education system is not the right answer to the challenges facing our classrooms,” they should examine the empirical research on early learning. Few uses of taxpayer money produce a higher public return than investments in early education when you consider the massive savings in future education, health care, and criminal justice system costs.

Off of Capitol Hill there here have been bipartisan calls for action. Governors from both parties are investing in early learning and it was the topic of a recent event co-hosted by two groups that would seem to have little in common: the Center for American Progress and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

President Obama has already made this issue a priority with his Early Learning Challenge, showing how Washington can leverage a small amount of competitive funding to great effect by encouraging innovative state-run programs. In Delaware, the design and growth of our pre-kindergarten efforts were helped by this federal investment.

But while the President continues to do what he can, the politics of Washington are a major roadblock to further federal action. Although we continue to welcome federal help, states must pick up the baton and work toward the goal of ensuring early learning opportunities for every American child.

That doesn’t mean simply enrolling all of our children in preschool. It’s the quality of care that matters. Study after study shows that children receiving quality early care are more likely to be successful in school, become better citizens, and earn more. Getting results requires a comprehensive approach that focuses on learning environment, health, and the capabilities of the professionals caring for children.

In Delaware, as in other leading states, we have a roadmap for what works:

Learning Environment: Like many states, Delaware assigns ratings to early childhood programs. An effective system uses clear metrics that help educate families on the best options for their children. That means evaluating curriculum, teacher qualifications and development, family and community partnerships, and leadership and administration.

Of course, we want every center to reach the highest level, but, historically, disadvantaged children have attended lower-rated programs that lack financial resources to improve. In Delaware, we’ve leveled the playing field for our kids. Higher rated centers receive more state aid to support enrollment of low-income children, making quality programs available to children who need them the most.

Health: Fewer than half of children with developmental delays are identified before they start school and services for Medicaid-funded screenings for low-income children are often overlooked. We must increase screenings that identify physical and behavioral health concerns, and provide appropriate referral and follow up services. Meanwhile, early childhood centers need to promote healthy eating and physical activity, while working with parents to support these practices at home.

In Delaware, we’re also reaching out to pediatricians and parents to ensure children receive all of these services and we’re sending Health Ambassadors to the neediest communities for events like community baby showers, where pregnant women learn about health resources.

Workforce: All of our efforts are only as good as the people who execute them, but many of the people in our early childhood workforce cannot afford to increase their qualifications. In Delaware, we offer scholarships to early learning staff to support additional education, and we’re training more licensed behavioral health specialists. In addition, by basing the ratings and support for early childhood centers in part on the credentials of their teachers, we help increase professional development.

Early childhood investments have never been more important. Recent studies have offered new insight into the challenges faced by disadvantaged children, finding that parents’ income and education levels correlate to their children’s brain development. However, research also shows we know how to overcome that challenge through a positive learning environment in a child’s first five years, when 90 percent of brain development takes place.

Fredrick Douglass famously said, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”  States are taking us to the next level, moving beyond rhetoric, and implementing practical solutions. It is time for Congressional Republicans to follow.

This blog post was originally published on Politico.

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