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Education secretary says time to debate preschool is over

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was the keynote speaker Tuesday at a White House summit in Los Angeles focused on the importance of early learning.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan was the keynote speaker Tuesday at a White House summit in Los Angeles focused on the importance of early learning.
Benjamin Brayfield/KPCC

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U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told a conference of preschool advocates in Los Angeles Tuesday that the value of early education to young children is undisputed and the effort should shift to expanding it to more kids.

Duncan told the audience, including many Southern California educators, that Los Angeles should be at the forefront of the push to provide high quality early education to all children.

"If this community and this state can fundamentally break through and take to scale what we know makes a difference in kids' lives, that would be amazing and the implications would be national," he said.

The education secretary gave his remarks at the White House Early Learning Summit at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, part of a two-day tour of California during which he promoted the economic and social benefits of early education. It was one of six such summits the White House is holding. Yesterday, Duncan attended another in San Francisco. 

While both Duncan and President Obama have mostly focused on making the economic case for universal preschool, Tuesday's speech marked a departure from that. Duncan cited Nobel-winning economist James Heckman and pointedly said the economic case for expanding preschool "is settled."

His speech to the gathered advocates was upbeat and congratulatory in tone. 

"If you guys can help to lead the nation where we need to go, a state that has 1 in 8 children going to school here, a community that’s increasingly diverse, increasingly minority, increasingly immigrant family — which guess what — is exactly where the nation is going — you guys are just leading the nation to where we’re going to go. Think about the opportunity to help L.A. break through," Duncan said.

Before his speech, Duncan attended a closed-door meeting with local business leaders, elected representatives and philanthropists. "I was thrilled to see the diversity of leaders here," he said. The meeting is part of the White House strategy to build broader support for the preschool expansion in the face of stiff Republican opposition in Washington.

"We're challenging not just the public sector, but the private sector, the nonprofits, philanthropy, the corporate community and foundations to step up and do the right thing for children," he said.

Duncan then spoke with reporters and called on local preschool advocates to "keep the pressure on and the voices up" ahead of the next state budget cycle. He said he thought the state "can invest as much as $350 million additionally" in the early childhood field. 

"It's not just about education — yes, it's about that — but it's about social justice," he said. "If we want to have a strong economy, we have to get our babies off to a strong start."