Secretary Duncan, You Missed An Awesome Opportunity

Monday afternoon, early childhood advocates and fans filled a room at the Perry Preschool in Ypsilanti to hear from U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan discuss President Obama’s Early Learning Proposal, Governor Rick Snyder on his efforts to expand preschool, and other experts on the value of early childhood education.  While Washtenaw County residents made-up a significant portion of the folks in the room, early childhood advocates from Detroit, Lansing and other communities also were in attendance to learn more about what Secretary Duncan had to say about the President’s historic effort to expand early learning opportunities across the prenatal through age five spectrum.

While the excitement around preschool is much deserved and grounded in solid research, I can’t help but feel that Secretary Duncan missed an opportunity to promote the comprehensive nature of the President’s Early Learning Plan.  For starters, the President’s plan doesn’t focus purely on four-year-old preschool, but rather encompasses the entire early learning experiences that are needed prenatally through age five.  Specifically, Obama’s plan calls for investments to expand evidence-based voluntary home visiting programs that support pregnant women and families with infants and toddlers, investments in high quality Early Head Start – Child Care partnerships that serve young children from birth through age three, high quality preschool for four-year-olds, and full-day kindergarten for five-year-olds.  This is what a comprehensive early learning plan looks like.  Unfortunately, much of the conversation yesterday revolved around preschool with only one mention to home visiting.

When Secretary Duncan was sitting next to Governor Snyder, I wish he had emphasized these other critical components to the early learning plan.  Preschool is a critical component and one that we know helps reduce disparities in school readiness.  We also know that for the children and families who are struggling the most in Michigan, more comprehensive services beginning prenatally that connect to a high quality preschool program ensures that more children will be better prepared for kindergarten.

And while we’re at it, there was quite a bit of discussion about universal preschool, with talk by Washtenaw residents who volunteered to pilot a universal preschool model in their county.  I would argue that this is antithetical to the early childhood system, which was created to serve the most challenged children and families.  In fact, all of the research supporting the return on investment for high quality early learning experiences is based on programs that serve very low-income children whose families often faced multiple challenges.  Rather than jumping to four-year-old preschool for all children, Michigan should first build a comprehensive early childhood system similar to the President’s proposal so that more kids are ready to succeed at kindergarten and beyond.  In Michigan, we need to expand access to voluntary home visiting and other services prenatally through age three, bolster our child care system (which is one of the worst in the nation), at the same time that we expand access to preschool for low-income children.   This is how we prevent the school readiness gap, prevent the achievement gap that we see in K-12, and ensure that we get the greatest return on our taxpayers’ investment – not by providing preschool for all children.

As Secretary Duncan continues to travel the country to promote Obama’s Early Learning Proposal, I would urge him not to shy away from discussing the details of the President’s plan.  He had a great opportunity this week in a room full of early childhood advocates who understand that the early childhood system doesn’t begin with preschool – he can help us move the public discourse towards a more comprehensive early childhood system.

-Mina Hong