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Statement of Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) At the HELP Committee Hearing: “Expanding Access to Quality Early Learning: The Strong Start for America’s Children Act”

“I want to thank our witnesses for being with us today to examine the Strong Start for America’s Children Act, a bill that will greatly expand access to high-quality early learning experiences for children from birth to kindergarten entry.

“I introduced this bill last November along with Congressmen George Miller and Richard Hanna. Already, it has received broad support from more than a quarter of the members of both the Senate and the House. The bill enjoys bipartisan support in the House of Representatives but, unfortunately, is supported on only one side of the aisle here in the Senate.  I am hopeful that situation will change.

“This legislation has received support from organizations you would expect to be associated with early childhood bills: early childhood advocates and professionals and researchers who have dedicated their professional lives to the study of what is developmentally appropriate for children. But Strong Start also has support from retired generals, top business leaders, law enforcement organizations, local chambers of commerce, pediatricians and other health professionals. They are all urging us to invest in high-quality early learning for very young children. 

“In drafting this legislation, we learned from the success of states that have developed systems of early childhood education, particularly for preschool-aged children. We talked to researchers to make sure that our proposals have a solid basis in evidence.  And we also talked to organizations representing governors, school districts, teachers and community-based early learning providers to make sure that what we put together can be successfully implemented on-the-ground.  

“Last month, when I was in Iowa for a field hearing on early childhood learning, we visited a preschool in Des Moines called Mitchell. Their staff was well-trained, they had small class-sizes, and used developmentally appropriate curricula. But, because of inadequate funding, they could offer preschool for only three hours a day.  Research strongly indicates that a full-day of preschool yields far better results for children. On a practical level, a part-day structure can make it tough on families who have to knit together transportation and child care arrangements to make preschool work. This bill would help states like Iowa to offer full-day programs for children so that parents don’t have to think about picking up their kids almost as soon as they’re dropping them off.

“Some argue that we have a proliferation of early learning programs, and we should determine how to better coordinate them. I agree, which is why, in the Strong Start bill, we ask states to coordinate and align their efforts. Others argue that we should simply look to the Child Care Development Block Grant as the answer to early childhood education. I would like to make clear that, while I am proud of our efforts to reauthorize that program, the bill that passed the Senate made modest changes to improve child care program that had not been reauthorized in 18 years.

“The most frustrating argument is that we already invest a significant amount of money in early childhood and that new investments aren’t needed. Reality suggests otherwise, given that only one in six children eligible for child care subsidies receive them, fewer than half of children eligible for Head Start receive its services, and fewer than one in twenty infants and toddlers eligible for Early Head Start have access to those programs.  We can and should do more to ensure that young children are given every opportunity to have access to quality early learning opportunities.  

“Currently, 43 states offer preschool. Indiana was among a few states that did not provide state-based support for preschool; but, recently, Governor Pence was able to advance a measure to get the state started in providing preschool. As Gov. Pence put it: ‘This is our shining moment to get out there and say yes, we’re crazy about kids and we want to support these initiatives.’  I couldn’t agree more.

“I am eager to work with any Senator who is willing to be a part of this legislative effort. But I cannot wait any longer to take action on what I believe is among the most important issues over which this committee has jurisdiction.  Accordingly, we will mark-up early learning legislation next month.”