“Every child born in this country is born with a light in them,” he said in a telephone conference with reporters on Thursday. “For many it is boundless — they can achieve anything. For others the light is limited, the potential is limited. We have an obligation at every level of government to make sure their full potential is realized. This is not optional, it is an obligation.”
One of the best ways, he said, is to give children early learning opportunities. Chief executive officers are advocates for early learning because they know that children who do well in school will become higher-skilled workers in later years. Economists have estimated a return on investment for early childhood education programs of about 16 percent, Casey said.
“This legislation will establish a one-time investment to help states raise the bar on program quality and provide more children with early access to high-quality education,” he said. “We need a national strategy on early learning. There is not enough federal involvement and investment. Pennsylvania is doing very good work in this area.”
A Pew Center for the States brief released on Thursday shows that early childhood programs, including high-quality prekindergarten, are helping states close the educational achievement gap.
The Supporting State Systems of Early Learning Act would establish an Early Learning Challenge Fund to help states build and strengthen systems of early learning, so that more low-income children ages 5 and under have access to high-quality early learning. The price tag would be $350 million for fiscal year 2012. States would have to provide a matching rate of 15 percent and an assurance that new funding will supplement, not supplant, current funding used to support early learning programs.
“Early education is a sound investment with a proven return on investment, which is why the business community supports early learning initiatives,” said Jack Brennan, former chairman and chief executive officer of the Vanguard Group and a member of the Pennsylvania Early Learning Investment Commission. “This bill calls upon states, in partnership with private entities, to invest in improving the quality of early learning.”
Harriet Dichter, national director for the First Five Years Fund and former secretary for the Pennsylvania Department of Public Welfare, said effective early learning is the engine that drives children’s school success and future economic success. The fund’s website says it is committed to improving the lives of at-risk children by leveraging cost-effective investments in early learning.
“We have a long way to go on this in the country,” she said. “The goal is to focus on better outcomes for kids.”
Morna Murray, vice president and counsel for children’s policy and strategy at First Focus, said this is a visionary bill. First Focus is a bipartisan advocacy organization dedicated to making children and families a priority in federal policy and budget decisions.
“It gives states resources to weave programs together,” she said. “It will help states to build early childhood systems.”
The bill is cosponsored by U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., Patty Murray, D-Wash., Chris Coons, D-Del., and Al Franken, D-Minn.