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The Honolulu Advertiser Op-Ed: U.S. House Steps Up for Early Education


Location: Washington, DC

The Honolulu Advertiser Op-Ed: U.S. House Steps Up for Early Education

The U.S. House of Representatives yesterday took a major step in helping our children accelerate their climb up the learning curve by introducing the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2009.

At President Obama's request, this comprehensive legislation includes a wide range of effective programs that we can all be proud of, such as cost-saving student lending plans, increased investments in Pell Grants, and a renewed focus on the important role of community colleges in providing academic opportunities as well as critical career training for our workforce.

This bill will provide the largest increase ever in student financial support for higher education, while also directing $10 billion in savings back to the U.S. Treasury to help pay down the deficit.

There is one program in this bill that I am particularly excited about: the Early Learning Challenge Fund, a key program that addresses the very first years of a child's academic career.

By engaging children's natural curiosity and love of learning from an early age, they will become more successful throughout their years of schooling. Building a solid academic foundation for our children — and our country — will enhance our nation's ability to compete and succeed in this global economy.

I am proud to say that the Early Learning Challenge Fund that the president has outlined closely mirrors the PRE-K Act (H.R. 702), which I have twice introduced since coming to Congress. Clearly these are worthy goals. Indeed, the president recognizes that quality early education is one of the most important investments we can make in our children and our communities.

Like the PRE-K Act, the Early Learning Challenge Fund would create a competitive grant program to provide incentives and resources to states as they improve their early childhood education programs. This new program will provide $10 billion in competitive grants to states over the next decade, providing funds for teacher education and professional development, quality improvements across all early learning settings, and improved systems to evaluate the success of programs for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers — giving parents valuable information they can use to choose the best early education programs for their children.

The Early Learning Challenge Fund will not create new preschool programs, but rather it will ensure that the programs states already offer, or plan to offer, will be of the highest quality. Only high-quality early childhood education yields the positive outcomes for families and communities by giving children the right tools to succeed in school and in life.

The research is clear: high-quality early education is a cost-effective strategy for improving student achievement, reducing expenditures on special education and remedial services and increasing graduation rates. In Oklahoma, where a high-quality, state-funded preschool program is available to all families, studies have found that children attending such a program made significant gains in early language, literacy, and math development, regardless of their ethnic or economic background.

Similar programs could be adopted across the country, further unlocking our students' potential. Children in Hawai'i would be better prepared to enter kindergarten — ready to learn and grow — instead of playing "catch-up" during those crucial early years of schooling.

Giving children a strong and successful start is more critical now than ever before, as more parents are struggling and states are facing record budget shortfalls.

If we are to develop a competitive workforce and help to rebuild a prosperous nation, we must invest in proven, research-based programs that develop human capital, starting where the learning begins — with early education.

Investing in early childhood education will chart the right course in helping our children achieve academic success. The House Education and Labor Committee, of which I am a member, has a key opportunity to begin that journey next Tuesday by passing the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act. On behalf of Hawai'i, I intend to work with the president and my colleagues to make that happen.

Mazie K. Hirono is a member of the United States House of Representatives representing Hawai'i's 2nd District. She wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.

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