Early Childhood Education is the Foundation for Improving Delaware's Education System
What we do for our children during their first years is tremendously important. In fact, research has concluded that brain development during the first 1,000 days of a child's life will go a long way in determining that child's ability to read, communicate, learn and think.
The stakes are huge because when a child is not given the opportunity to be exposed to a quality experience in their first few years, that child is at higher risk to wind up needing remedial help, dropping out of school, and sometimes worse. By contrast, kids who attend pre-kindergarten programs are far less likely to need special education later; and they are more likely to graduate high school, and almost three times more likely to attend a four-year college.
John believes we need to change the way we think about Early Childhood Education. We need to give it the priority and attention it deserves as a critical part of our education system. A governor can do that, and if John is Delaware's next governor, he will. Here are several initiatives that he will implement and pursue as Governor to give Early Childhood Education the prominence it needs.
* First, we need to create a quality system for early childhood education in Delaware that is well-focused and coordinated. To help meet that goal, as governor, John will create an Early Childhood Education Cabinet Council. This group would include cabinet members from the Department of Services for Children, Youth and their Families, the Department of Health and Social Services, the Department of Education and the Department of Labor as well as the governor's office. Together these state agencies touch the lives of many of our state's young children in a variety of ways. But too often we lack a coordinated approach, especially in identifying children at risk and addressing their needs. We can do better. This is an area where the leadership of the governor can make a big difference and John intends to provide that leadership.
* The Early Childhood Education Cabinet Committee will study best practices from around the country and identify ways to better integrate the services they provide to improve educational outcomes. These best practices must include the involvement of non-profit and other non-governmental agencies that provide an array of services to kids, from nutrition to health care and recreation, all of which have an impact on the lives of young students. Better integrated services can improve the quality and access to early childhood education opportunities in Delaware.
* Make ECE programs a more integral part of the education continuum through shared information on student progress. Many other countries, and some other states, are ahead of Delaware in their thinking about how ECE programs fit into our children's overall education. Today we have only begun to measure the success of ECE programs in terms of the educational progress of students. And we do not do an adequate job of tracking that progress in our K-12 education. Here again we can do much better. As Vision 2015 has advocated, we need to build systems that share information so that educators can track the progress of students from preschool through college. If we can develop this kind of technology in as complicated an area as personal health care records, surely we can do it for a student's education progress.
* Fundamental to improving ECE opportunities in our state is to raise the overall quality of our system of providers. This must be a top priority. We can do this by providing more education opportunities for the workforce and by holding providers more accountable for the quality of their childcare programs. One way to improve accountability is to require ECE providers to receive an annual certification to remain qualified and eligible for state funding. This certification would be based on nationally accepted standards for quality ECE programs and for adequate and properly trained staff.
* Institute a quality ratings system for ECE programs. We also need to encourage our childcare providers to constantly strive to be better. To do this, my administration will follow through on the goals outlined in the Delaware Stars for Early Success program. This initiative is a quality rating and improvement system that is based on a system of stars - five being the highest rating and one the lowest. This system is good for two reasons. One, it gives parents and caregivers an easy to understand system that indicates how a center is performing as they decide where to place their child. Two, it gives us a way to see if programs are progressing and improving. And if they are, we can reward them for that.
* Expand funding for the T.E.A.C.H. program. As with every level of education, the most important influence on the progress of a child is the quality of the teacher in the room. Research has shown that an Associates Degree is really the minimum level of education needed for a teacher to develop the tools to run a quality early childhood program. The T.E.A.C.H. Early Childhood program already does a great job at helping early childhood educators earn that degree and as Governor John will make it a priority to expand funding for this program.
T.E.A.C.H. stands for Teacher Education and Compensation Helps. The program offers scholarships to those working at least 30 hours per week in a licensed early care and education or school-age program who want to earn an Associate's Degree and stay in the field of early childhood education. Right now, the program is funded through a public-private partnership. We need to add state funds for this program so that those who are dedicated to early childhood education have access to the knowledge and tools they need to become a quality teacher and continue to improve. Programs like this also create a skilled workforce that allows childcare centers to find quality individuals to join their staff.
* Reform how early childhood programs are financed to expand access. Right now, the main way the State funds qualified ECE centers is through Purchase of Care or POC. The POC program is a subsidy that supports early childhood and after-school education and care for more than 15,000 children from birth through age 12 who live in households with incomes under 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Limit. As we all know, money is tight and choosing priorities in the state budget is difficult. Because of that, previous funding gains by this program have been minimized by the zero gains in the last couple budgets. As Governor, John will make funding the Purchase of Care program a budget priority and he will add a performance reward system based on the Delaware Stars for Early Success program. Those programs who improve their quality and, therefore, move up in the rating system will be reimbursed at a higher rate for POC students. That will allow them to accept more POC students, which will be incredibly beneficial to those students, and it will allow them to compensate their quality teachers better. That should also help them with retaining and recruiting quality staff.
* Expand access through private and non-profit sector involvement in ECE opportunities. The private and non-profit sectors have important roles to play in expanding ECE opportunities to more Delaware children. Many larger firms already provide space and subsidize ECE programs. But more can be done. Banks can be encouraged to use Community Reinvestment Act funds to invest in ECE facilities. Non-profits can help subsidize the cost of educating early childhood educators as well as the cost of tuition to parents.
Delaware is ahead of most of the nation in many areas of ECE, but there is much more we can do, and should do. We see the results of what we have accomplished in higher test scores in the early grades. We need to build on this good work with this plan.