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Early Childhood Innovation Summit

Washington, DC
August 3, 2010

Thank you, Joan. It’s great to be here today.

I want to thank Secretary Duncan for his leadership and partnership. There’s no one more passionate or determined when it comes to fighting for America’s children.

We’re also lucky to have two of our country’s leading experts on early childhood development – Joan and Jacqueline – guiding this partnership. Combined, Joan and Jacqueline have more than 50 years of experience working on these issues. They’ve seen what works and what doesn’t work, and under their leadership, every choice we make is guided by the best evidence gathered from around the country.

Most importantly, I want to thank all of you. You’re the ones on the front lines administering these programs, meeting budgets, and giving our kids a great start in life. And I think it’s a great sign for America’s children that so many of you are here today for this unprecedented conversation about how we can work together to reach more children with more effective programs that meet more of their needs.

We’re all here today because we believe you can’t climb the ladder of opportunity if the first rung is missing. The best research tells us that learning begins at birth and that the most rapid development in children’s brains happens in the first five years. But for far too long, our public policy treated everything that came before kindergarten as an afterthought.

That’s changing. This Administration believes deeply that early childhood development is a key not only to helping our children succeed, but to keeping our country competitive.

This is an issue that President Obama has talked about since the campaign trail. Secretary Duncan has made early childhood development a key part of the most ambitious effort to improver our education system in years. It’s been a top priority of mine since I was Governor of Kansas and we created the state’s first ever early education block grant.

And you can see this emphasis not only in the Recovery Act, but also in President Obama’s 2011 budget.

But as you all know, we’re also gathering at a time when there are larger economic forces pushing back against our momentum. Our Recovery Act investments helped tens of thousands of families stay on their feet during the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. But continuing these investments in the current budget environment will be a challenge.

And though we recently got some good news when the Senator Harkin and the Senate Appropriations Committee included a $300 million Early Learning Challenge Fund and $1 billion in additional child care funding in their Labor-HHS appropriations bill, we don’t know what the final funding levels will be.

So our challenge today is to keep moving forward on early childhood development despite these budgetary challenges. And one of the biggest ways I believe we can do that is by working together to put a new focus on quality.

Focusing on quality means saying that when it comes to early childhood development: more is better, but it’s not enough. Child care can’t just be sitting your toddler in front of a television. And preschool can’t just be somewhere you drop your child off in the morning.

Just as high schools aim to prepare students for college, early childhood development programs should be rigorously designed with an eye towards the skills our children will need to succeed in their next step in life.

That includes academic skills. But it also includes making sure they’re ready emotionally. It means they have self control and can get along with other children and are building self-esteem. It means they’re physically healthy. It means they’re getting good nutrition. It means they have parents who are engaged in their education and development.

It’s critical for early childhood education programs to have the best teachers and lesson plans. But the teacher and lesson plan don’t matter if the children are too hungry or sick or distracted to pay attention in class.

Our efforts must also recognize that every family’s different and no one-size-fits-all approach will work. Instead, we need to provide a wide range of high-quality options from Head Start to child care to private and public pre-Kindergarten to promising new models like home visitation.

It’s our job to take the wide range of programs that families depend on and shape them into a seamless, high-quality early learning and development system where every family can choose the program that works best for them and no family has to compromise on quality.

To do this, we need to work together, starting at the federal level. And that’s where the Interagency Policy Board comes in.

As Secretary Duncan explained, this new board will allow us to get on the same page. We’ll be able to coordinate research, collaborate on data collection, strengthen our early childhood workforce, and promote a set of consistent and comprehensive quality standards across our early childhood programs.

At our department, this work is already underway.

In Head Start, we’re improving performance standards and developing competition policies that will help us assure that all Head Start and Early Head Start programs deliver high-quality services.

In child care, we’re encouraging improved licensing and monitoring as well as promoting systems to measure and improve quality – efforts we hope to put at the center of the upcoming Child Care and Development Block Grant Reauthorization.

As we provide guidance to states in these areas, we’ll be able to rely on two new reports.

Later today at this conference, a coalition of children’s health groups will release a report funded and supported by our department with suggested nutrition, exercise, and screen time standards that will help early care and development programs join the fight against childhood obesity.

And soon, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will release the second edition of their ABC's of Safe and Healthy Child Care, which tells child care professionals and parents how to keep children from catching communicable diseases as well as giving them information on nutrition, how children learn and develop, and preparing for emergencies.

Along with improved standards, we need to do a better job supporting our early childhood workforce. That’s why we’re working with the Department of Education to improve access to higher education for early childhood professionals. And that’s why our department is awarding grants to states and territories to establish state advisory councils that can help strengthen professional development.

Over the next two days, we want to hear from you too about how to design the most effective early childhood development programs.

We want to know what you think are the key ingredients for giving our youngest children momentum that will carry them all the way through life.

But our efforts cannot end when children leave their Head Start program or child care center. Our children need support 24/7, not just 9 to 5.

That’s why we fought hard to make sure the Affordable Care Act contained an unprecedented five-year, $1.5 billion investment in evidence-based home visitation programs.

In these programs, trained professionals visit expecting parents to provide information and help them prepare for the birth of their child. Then they continue to visit during the child’s early years to answer questions, share parenting tips, and help parents support their child’s development.

In the past, this was often the role that grandparents played. But today when extended families are often scattered across the country, many parents leave the hospital with a lot of questions and no good way to get answers.

Home visiting professionals can help fill that void – catching problems early, connecting families that need extra help with services, and often preventing child abuse and neglect, poor nutrition, or illness before they happen.

They have proven their value across the country. For a small initial investment, they can help parents develop skills that will benefit their children for years to come.

Last month, we awarded the first round of this funding to help states assess their current home visiting options, see where their needs are, and begin to invest in new services. And over the next five years, we’ll use the rest of the funds help scale up effective programs in states and tribal communities across the country while continuing to look for new ways to improve this proven model.

In addition to reaching out to families, we also need to do a better job connecting children in early learning and development programs to other critical health and human services programs, whether it’s mental health supports or dental services.

Within our own department, we’re already experimenting with different ways to strengthen these connections. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, for example, has put a new priority on prevention and early childhood mental health. And the Children’s Bureau and Office of Head Start have formed a new partnership where officials from child welfare agencies and Head Start programs are encouraged to work together to provide the services our most vulnerable children need.

We can make a huge difference in children’s lives just by making better use of the services that are already available.

For example, right now, there are five million children in America who are eligible for the Children’s Health Insurance Program or Medicaid but aren’t signed up. That’s five million children who are just some paperwork away from being able to go to the doctor when they get sick without their parents having to worry beforehand about how much the bill is going to be.

That’s unacceptable.

So I’ve challenged my colleagues in this Administration, our friends in state and local government, and health care providers, sports coaches, and community groups across the country to work with us to cover these five million kids over the next five years.

To help them do that, we’re giving out more than $100 million in grants to fund some of the most creative strategies around the country for finding these kids and getting them enrolled.

Of course, we already know where a lot of these kids are. They’re in our Head Start and Early Head Start, pre-K, after-school programs, child care programs and in our schools.

So today, I want to challenge you: every time you sign a kid up for an early childhood program, find out whether they have health insurance of not. And if they don’t, figure out whether they’re eligible for CHIP or Medicaid and help them sign up. To learn more about how you can help, I encourage you to visit our great new website, which is available in English and Spanish.

We’re here today because we all believe that supporting our children in their earliest years is one of the most important investments we can make in our country’s future.

And because it’s so important, we can’t afford to be wasteful. We need to make sure every dollar gives our children the biggest boost possible, funding high-quality programs that meet all of our children’s needs

To do that, we need to work together. That’s why Secretary Duncan and I are announcing this next step in our partnership. And that’s why we’re here today.

When you go home later this week, I hope you’ll take some new ideas. I hope you’ll bring some new information. But I hope you’ll also take a new commitment to collaboration with your colleagues here at this conference and at home in your states and communities.

During these difficult times, that’s how we can continue to make the biggest difference in the lives of children today and build the brightest future for our country tomorrow.

Thank you.