WEEK OF THE YOUNG CHILD -- (Senate - April 17, 2008)
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Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, today I strongly support Senator Salazar's resolution designating this week, the third week in April, as the ``Week of the Young Child.'' I hope the resolution represents a new commitment by all of us in Congress to strengthen the services young children need to become full and productive members of our society in the years ahead.
Last year's reauthorization of the Head Start Act was a significant step in the right direction to assure access to quality early childhood education. The act expanded coverage to families just above the poverty line and provided additional flexibility to assist more poor families as they make the transition to work and struggle to keep up with the rising cost of living in today's new economy. We also renewed our commitment to underserved populations, such as Native Americans and migrant and seasonal farm worker families, and worked to ensure that every teacher in every Head Start classroom is highly qualified.
In addition, the reauthorization established an Early Childhood Education Advisory Council to assess the needs children in of early childhood programs and develop a comprehensive plan for improving the quality of services provided. That effort will improve professional development, upgrade standards, enhance connections among programs, and improve data collection. States ready to take on the challenge of implementing these needed improvements qualify for inventive grants to get that work underway. Together these reforms strengthen our commitment to provide both quality childcare, and quality early learning opportunities for the Nation's youth. But there is still much more to be done.
The research is clear--high quality early education makes a profound difference in the lives of children, especially at-risk children. In fact, many experts believe that 85 percent of a child's intellect is established before a child reaches the age of five. Unless we begin to educate at-risk children before they reach kindergarten, we may lose them forever. Students who start school behind tend to stay behind, and early childhood education makes all the difference. Those who have access to high quality early childhood education are 30 percent more likely to graduate from high school, twice as likely to go on to college, and are 40 percent less likely to need expensive special education programs or be held back a grade.
But the positive benefits extend beyond the classroom. Early childhood education helps to break the devastating cycle of crime and poverty. Nobel Laureate James Heckman's study of at-risk boys who receive quality early education shows that less than 10 percent of the boys who participated would be convicted of a crime and less than 2 percent would end up on welfare--rates significantly lower than those who did not receive such education.
Quality early education programs are supportive of young children in ways that enable them to become productive members of society. By cultivating educated, law abiding members of society we help to guarantee our national competitiveness, the stability of our economy and the fabric of our communities for the years ahead. Early childhood education creates better students, better workers and better citizens.
We must invest in such education for sake of our students and our national well being. We know the best way to ensure that our students receive quality early education is by giving them a highly qualified teacher. Yet, early childhood educators continue to be overworked and undervalued in our society. Prekindergarten teachers get paid on average less than half what an elementary school teacher gets paid. The Bureau of Labor statistics estimates that the average salary of a pre-school teacher is $21,730--closer to the salaries of school bus drivers, at $22,890, than any other group of educators, all with median salaries over $44,000.
Inadequate wages make it nearly impossible to recruit and retain qualified early childhood educators. The number of childcare providers with bachelor's degrees declines year after year, and neither their wages nor the high rates of turnover are acceptable. We must make it a national priority to guarantee that early childhood educators are paid and supported in a manner that reflects their valuable contributions to our Nation's future.
We have come a long way in assuring that our Nation's young children have access to the supports and services they need, but our mission is far from complete. This is no time for complaining. We must continue to expand our support for our nation's youngest children, for they truly are America's future. Let's use this ``Week of the Young Child'' to emphasize that vital point for communities across our great country.