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A tough road ahead for early education bill

Actress and mom Jennifer Garner was at Wednesday's introduction of a bill for more early learning programs.
Actress and mom Jennifer Garner was at Wednesday's introduction of a bill for more early learning programs.

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A roomful of pre-schoolers, a movie star, the Secretary of Education, and mostly Democrat lawmakers unveiled a bill Wednesday to boost funding for early childhood education. 

With the national dropout rate at 25%, lawmakers on Capitol Hill say the answer is to tackle the problem before kids show up for kindergarten.

A bill co-sponsored by California Democrat George Miller would spend more than $4 billion to improve pre-school for children from low- and middle-income families. The measure is similar to one also introduced by Democratic Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa.

Before unveiling the measure, Miller crawled around on the floor with a vocal group of pre-schoolers who demonstrated they know more than just numbers and colors. Miller, the top Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee, said the kids showed they know how to socialize, “how to get along with other children, how to share and take turns.” Miller got a laugh when he suggested the kids visit lawmakers to share those skills.

Sheriff Richard Stanek of Minnesota's Hennepin County, who heads the Major Counties Sheriffs Association, talked about the connection between education and crime, noting that “seven out of ten inmates in state prisons don’t have a high school diploma.”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said America’s 25% dropout rate was at “crisis level.” He described the “staggering” number of kids who enter kindergarten not even knowing the front of a book from the back. “What chance in life do they have?”

Actress Jennifer Garner, a mom with pre-schoolers of her own, and an artist/ambassador with the Save the Children program, described visiting homes without a single book. And those homes were quiet, she said. Garner recounted the story of a mom in California’s Central Valley who said she didn’t see the point of talking to her children until they were old enough to talk back.

The education measure would spend $4 billion to expand Early Head Start to serve five times as many poor kids. It would also help child care providers with training and technical assistance.

But the multi-billion dollar bill will have a tough time passing a Congress that can't even balance this year's budget. Congressman Miller brushed off skepticism over whether his bill could pass the GOP-led House. He insisted the early education proposal would be included in the bi-partisan budget discussion currently underway.
Marc Sandalow, who teaches political science at the University of California's D.C. Center, said more money for Head Start "is about as likely as a snow day for Los Angeles school children." He noted the budget is being fought on Republican grounds: "It’s a matter of what to cut not what to add." 

Sequestration has already forced cuts to the Head Start program, kicking 50,000 children out of the program — more than ten percent of them in California.

The chairman of Miller's committee, Republican John Kline of Minnesota, issued a statement saying both sides agree "on the importance of ensuring children have the foundation necessary to succeed in school and in life." However, he said before investing in new federal early childhood initiatives, "we should first examine opportunities to improve existing programs designed to help our nation’s most vulnerable children."

Kline cited a 2012 Government Accountability Office report showing that the federal government spends more than $13 billion a year to operate nearly four dozen programs nationwide. Kline promised a hearing in coming weeks to look at the challenges of early childhood education.

The Republican co-sponsor of Miller's bill — and the only GOP member in the room — Richard Hanna of New York, tried out his pitch to fellow GOP lawmakers: a better educated workforce can create middle class jobs rather than the service oriented jobs available today.

“We wonder why people aren’t paying into the coffers of the United States and their local governments?" Hanna observed. "The jobs that they have don’t sustain them.”

The measure is called The Strong Start for America's Children Act of 2013.