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Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge

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Washington, DC
May 24, 2011

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Secretary Duncan, thank you for your work every day to provide every child access to a quality education, from cradle to college to career.

In this age of human capital, the only way America can out-compete the rest of the world is if we out-educate the rest of the world. And the only way we can do that is if every child gets a healthy start and a rich early learning experience.

The Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge is an important step in that direction.

When I entered public office first as a State Legislator and then eventually as Governor, the federal government was not the partner it needed to be on early childhood development.

We were beginning to understand just how important those first few years of life are for cognitive, social and emotional development. And we saw that investing in early childhood development was one of the best bets that government could make.

The payoff wasn’t just higher test scores and graduation rates. It was more productive adults, stronger families, and more secure communities.

And yet, large numbers of kids could not enroll in the early learning programs for which they were eligible. Demand far exceeded capacity and many who could enroll didn’t always find the highest quality care and education. In Kansas, we learned at one point that half of our state’s five-year-olds weren’t prepared for kindergarten.

When I became Governor, we knew we had to make early childhood development one of our top opportunities. And we quickly saw progress.

Yet across the country, states like Kansas that were working to improve early education did not have a full and active partner in the federal government.

Under President Obama and this Administration, that’s changing. We want to be that partner, and over the last two years, we’ve made a significant investment in our children’s future.

Funds under the Recovery Act added 4,000 Head Start classrooms and allowed states to provide child care assistance to an estimated 300,000 additional children.

But our commitment goes beyond making these opportunities available to more children. We’re also committed to raising the quality of these programs for all children.

That’s why we’ve revamped our training programs for Head Start providers so best practices can be spread to Head Start classrooms in communities across the country. And, we’ve issued proposed rules that, for the first time, would require low performing Head Start programs to compete for continued funding.

And we’re just as committed to strengthening our child care system, which is why we want to work with states to improve health and safety standards and give parents information about the quality of care provided by different programs.

Taken together, these investments are designed to create an early learning system that gets every child in every community ready for school.

We know that helping young children prepare for kindergarten is about more than teaching them their colors and letters - it is about supporting healthy child development.

To learn, children need to be healthy. They need to have the social and emotional skills to listen and work with others. And, they need families that are engaged in their education.

That is why we need to think holistically about early education and build strong linkages between early education programs and other efforts that help families and kids thrive. And health is an important piece of that work.

The Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge will take a holistic approach to early education, driving innovation and focusing on what it takes to help put young children on the path of learning, opportunity, and success.

We are committed to giving every child the chance to enter school healthy and fully prepared and ready to excel. The Early Learning Challenge will supercharge that commitment, making the federal government a true partner with states, spurring them to take further steps to strengthen their early education systems.

And by pushing everyone to raise their game, it will foster innovation across our early childhood programs whether a child is enrolled in a public pre-K program, a Head Start center, a child care center, or a family day care home.

Our children won’t be able to compete for tomorrow’s jobs if they’ve already fallen behind by the age of five.

By giving them a healthy start and a rich learning experience in their earliest days, we can put our kids on the path to achieve their fullest potential and ensure that American workers remain the best in the world.