US Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, & Pensions

Statement of Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) At the HELP Committee Hearing: “Supporting Children and Families through High Quality Early Education”

Thursday, February 06, 2014

*As Prepared for Delivery*

“There truly is nothing more important than what we as a society do to support our youngest children, and I look forward to a robust discussion on that topic today. I would also like to say, at the outset, that I do not believe there is disagreement about ensuring that children who benefit from federal programs should be in high-quality settings that nurture their healthy development and growth. In fact, I know that Senator Alexander has a great deal of knowledge and passion on these issues because he so ably led the Subcommittee on Children and Families for many years alongside Senator Dodd.

“Today’s hearing will serve as the first in a series focusing on early learning.  Next, I plan to hold a field hearing in Des Moines to explore how early learning programs have benefited the people of Iowa, and what issues Congress should give priority to as we consider new early learning legislation.

“In the second week of April, this Committee will again convene to discuss early learning, with a particular focus on strengthening  the Strong Start for America’s Children Act –  legislation that is currently supported by more than a quarter of the Senate. We will hold a mark-up of that legislation before the Memorial Day recess.   

“In the coming months, the Committee will devote a great deal of time and attention to the subject of early learning. I strongly encourage the members of this Committee to hold roundtables and have discussions on early learning in their local communities because there is no issue of greater importance than ensuring that our youngest children are provided the support that they need to live healthy, happy, and productive lives. I believe access to high-quality early education increases the likelihood that children will have those positive outcomes – a view that, I’m sure, is shared by my fellow Committee members and the panelists who are with us today. I note that 63 percent of respondents to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, released two weeks ago, placed an absolute priority on ensuring access to preschool this year.

“The federal government supports a variety of programs to support early education and care, such as the Child Care Subsidy program and Head Start. However, those investments fall well short of what is needed. According to the most recent data from the Department of Health and Human Services, only one in six children eligible for child care assistance received such assistance. Of the preschool-aged children eligible for Head Start, fewer than half are served. Among infants and toddlers eligible for Early Head Start, less than 5 percent are served.

State governments have done much in recent years to expand preschool offerings to young children.  However, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research, states reduced their preschool investments by more than half a billion dollars between 2011 and 2012.       

“All of this works against a growing awareness that investing in early education for children in their earliest years can yield lifelong benefits. Widely-cited research by professor James Heckman, a Nobel laureate, suggests that investment in early education can help reduce the need for special education in the elementary and secondary school years, lower crime rates, increase the likelihood of healthier lifestyles, and prepare children to be ready for kindergarten once they enter the schoolhouse door. Aside from those long-term benefits, there is an immediate economic benefit in supporting high-quality public early education because it gives parents the ability to be productive members of the workforce while having the peace of mind that their child is being cared for in settings that encourage their healthy development and growth. Opponents of increased investment in early learning argue that the federal government already spends more than $14 billion on early learning, and supports dozens of duplicative and redundant programs. 

“However, what this criticism fails to recognize is that many of those supposedly redundant programs are not designed to provide full-day early education and care to children. For example – IDEA Part C provides critical services to infants and toddlers with disabilities or developmental delays, but it cannot accurately be described as a preschool program. IDEA Part C provides targeted interventions based on the needs of the child, and the frequency and intensity of those interventions rightfully vary from child-to-child.   

“Opponents also focus their criticisms on Head Start.  Detractors of the Head Start program often point to a longitudinal study released by the Department of Health and Human Services showing that the academic achievement of children who benefited from Head Start eventually converges with the achievement of children who did not attend Head Start. This is often described as ‘fade-out.’  However, these critics fail to point out that the study was conducted prior to the 2007 reauthorization of Head Start, which made a number of improvements to strengthen the quality of the program, including a heightened emphasis on the education and training of Head Start teachers.

“Furthermore, while the reason for ‘fade-out’ has not been clearly identified by research, there are several possibilities. For instance, children from Head Start enter elementary schools with much higher percentages of children living in poverty than is the case with schools nationwide; we know that schools that have high concentrations of poverty tend to be under-resourced, and are often staffed by personnel with lower qualifications than those who work in low-poverty schools. Further, longitudinal research suggests that, despite evidence of convergence, children who attended Head Start are more likely to graduate from high school and attend college; they are less likely to experience child mortality; and they are less likely to be out of a job or out of school as an adult.

“The truth is that the preponderance of research points to the powerful benefits of early learning. That’s why 40 states and the District of Columbia have acted on their own to expand access to preschool for young kids.

“Let me also note that the needs of working families today are different than they once were. More than half of dual-income households have to send their child to some form of child care arrangement, and families are spending hand over fist for private care. Families at the poverty line are spending as much as 30 percent of their income on care for their children, and that’s not even considering whether the care is of high quality. I’ve proposed legislation to accelerate the work currently being done in states to support high-quality pre-K, and to dramatically increase access to high-quality care for infants and toddlers.

“As I mentioned earlier, this legislation enjoys broad Democratic support in the Senate. And I am confident that, over the next few months, we can continue to have constructive conversations in this Committee so that we can find bipartisan agreement on how best to move forward on early learning.  It is not uncommon for this Committee to find common ground on issues that affect young children – as evidenced by the recent Committee passage of a comprehensive reauthorization for the Child Care and Development Block Grant – which will see action in the full Senate in the next few weeks. My hope is that over the coming months we can achieve the same kind of bipartisan agreement on early learning that made it possible for Congress to provide significant investments for Head Start, child care and preschool in the omnibus 2014 appropriations bill that we passed last month. 

“I do not believe that I, or the majority party in the Senate, have a monopoly on good intentions or good ideas. So, in the months leading-up to the mark-up of my bill, I look forward to exploring a whole range of alternative approaches to meeting the same goal of providing high-quality early education to young children.”         

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