03.10.14

Opening Statement of Chairman Tom Harkin at the HELP Committee Field Hearing on Expanding Access to High-Quality Early Education

DES MOINES, IA—U.S. Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, today chaired a field hearing of the Committee in Des Moines to explore ways to expand and strengthen early education options for children and parents. The hearing, titled “Doing What's Right: Preparing Iowa's Children for Success in School and Beyond,” is aimed at providing a platform to discuss early learning programs and initiatives that benefit young children in Iowa, as well as priority issues for Congress to consider as it debates new early learning legislation.

“All children, regardless of circumstance, deserve access to a high-quality education that will nurture that potential. If we as a nation are to provide our children with the tools necessary to be successful in their school years and afterward, then we must all recognize that learning begins at birth and the preparation for learning begins before birth,” Harkin said.

Harkin recently introduced the Strong Start for America’s Children Act, which would greatly increase access to and quality of programs that serve children from birth to kindergarten. The bill focuses on four key goals: boosting funding for high-quality preschool programs serving low- and moderate-income families; increasing the quality of infant and toddler care offered by providers; supporting broad-scale quality improvements to child care programs; and encouraging continued support for the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) program. Read more about the bill here.

Harkin’s opening statement at the hearing, as prepared for delivery, is below.

“First, I want to thank our witnesses for being with us today. I realize that your days, and most likely your nights, are consumed with work to improve the lives of the young children in Iowa and I offer my deepest gratitude for you all taking time out of your day to join me. I have had the pleasure of working with most of you over my many years in the Congress and I’m sure you’re all aware that early learning has been of great interest to me for quite some time. 

“That interest comes from my strong belief that all children are born with the potential to learn and succeed. All children, regardless of circumstance, deserve access to a high-quality education that will nurture that potential. If we as a nation are to provide our children with the tools necessary to be successful in their school years and afterward, then we must all recognize that learning begins at birth and the preparation for learning begins before birth.

“The federal government currently funds a number of programs to support early childhood education and care. However, those programs are well short of meeting existing needs.  We serve fewer than one in 20 infants and toddlers eligible for Early Head Start. We serve approximately one in six children eligible for child care assistance. The Omnibus Appropriations bill Congress passed in January made important investments in this regard. Through the Appropriations Subcommittee that I chair, we provided over a $1 billion increase for Head Start and $150 million increase for child care. This will improve access to Head Start, including Early Head Start, and to quality, affordable child care. But we need to do more, much more.

“Last month, in my first of a series of hearings on early learning, one of the witnesses mentioned that of parents in the top quintile of earners – 90 percent of their children receive access to preschool. For children who live in families that earn in the bottom two quintiles – only 65 percent of those children attended a preschool program. That data shocked me when I heard it. That disparity in access is simply unacceptable.

“Here in Iowa, the state has made great advancements in providing greater access to high-quality early childhood education for young children. When you take into account the state’s investments in the Shared Visions program for at-risk children, the Statewide Voluntary Preschool program for four-year olds, and the federal investments through IDEA, Head Start, and Child Care – Iowa is nearly leading the nation in terms of access to preschool. However, and as I’m sure we’ll discuss today, there are areas where we can improve. For instance, my understanding is that the statewide program only requires an instructional program of 10 hours a week, or two hours a day.

“I’m a firm believer, and the research indicates, that a full-day of preschool yields far better results for children. Also, and on a more practical note, this part-day structure can make it tough on families who have to knit together transportation and child care arrangements to make preschool work. Another area where we can improve is geographic equity in access. I understand that school districts in Iowa participate in the preschool program on a voluntary basis, which is shutting some four-year olds out of preschool in some communities all together.

“Now, you all may be aware that I wear two related hats in the Senate, as chair of the Committee that authorizes education programs, and also as chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee that funds education programs.  Wearing my Appropriations hat, the significant increases for Head Start, the child care subsidy program, and new investments to support the expansion of high-quality preschool that I helped secure last month will lay the foundation for a piece of legislation that I’m pushing through my Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee – it’s called the Strong Start for America’s Children Act. That bill, which you all may be familiar with, significantly expands our investments at the federal level to accelerate the work currently being done in states to support high-quality pre-K, and it also dramatically increases access to high-quality care for infants and toddlers. I’d be interested to hear your views on the legislation if you have any because I intend to pass that bill out of my committee before Memorial Day.

“I look forward to the testimony from you all and really just want to encourage you to have a frank conversation with me today on how best the Congress can support some of the great work you all are already doing.” 

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