40th Annual National Head Start Conference

By:  Kathleen Sebelius
Date: May 3, 2013
Location: National Harbor, MD

Thank you, Yasmina, for that introduction and for your leadership of the National Head Start Association. Thank you all for traveling across the country to be here today and for everything you do for your communities.

I also want to acknowledge my great partner on early education, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and our great HHS leaders in this area, including Linda Smith, Yvette Sanchez Fuentes, and so many others.

Early education is an issue I've cared deeply about going back to my experience as a new mom. I entered public life when my sons were 2 and 5, so I lived early education.

Then as Governor of Kansas, I made early education one of our top priorities. At one point half of our state's five year-olds weren't prepared for kindergarten. And we understood that we had both a moral and economic imperative not to let our children fall behind before their fifth birthdays.

One thing we didn't have while I was Governor was a strong partnership with the federal government on early education. That's one of the reasons I'm so proud to be a part of this Administration. I don't think there's been any President or Administration this committed to early learning in recent history.

You can see that commitment in the actions we've taken from Head Start investments in the Recovery Act, to the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge, and to working with you to improve quality in the Head Start program. You've seen it in our efforts boosting child care quality and empowering parents through the Affordable Care Act's evidence-based home visiting.

You also saw that commitment in the President's State of the Union address where he made it clear that early education is a necessary component of any plan to grow the economy and the middle class.

And I think you can also see that commitment in the close partnership I've had with Secretary Duncan. I don't know if our departments have ever worked together this closely. In fact, this is the third early education event Secretary Duncan and I have attended together in a week.

And in many ways, this commitment and collaboration has never been needed as much as it is needed today.

One of those events Secretary Duncan and I attended over the past week was the release of the National Institute for Early Education Research's annual report on the state of preschool in America. And the news was not good.

In 2012 state funding for pre-K saw the largest drop ever. For the first time, we saw no increase in the percentage of children served in state pre-K. At the same time, we know we're only serving 4% of Early Head Start eligible children -- and 17% of the population who can benefit from the Child Care Development Fund.

That's why the agenda the President outlined in his State of the Union for establishing a continuum of high quality early learning -- beginning at birth and continuing to age 5 -- is so important.

And I want to stress that every part of this proposal builds on the incredible work all of you do in Head Start. Head Start has always been -- and will continue to be -- a leader in early childhood education and a model for the kind of comprehensive program we know works best.

With this as its foundation, the President's proposal starts by extending and expanding home visiting programs, which support parents in their important role as their child's first and most important educator.

Next, it makes historic investments in new Early Head Start -- Child Care Partnerships, which, combined with maintained Recovery Act investments, will triple the number of children who benefit from Early Head Start from the start of the Administration.

We know if don't intervene by age 3, children are already falling behind. And critically, these programs put a priority on family engagement, which as you is just as important as anything else the program does for the child.

Finally, the President's plan will ensure access to high-quality preschool for every child in America -- an investment that will also free up Head Start to serve more younger children, especially lowest income and the most vulnerable.

To pay for this, the President's proposal would raise the tobacco tax. We know that 90% of all adult smokers begin while in their teens or earlier, and that two-thirds become regular, daily smokers before they reach the age of 19. We also know that young consumers are highly price sensitive.

So raising the tobacco tax is not just a way to raise funds. It's also the single biggest step we can take to discourage kids from developing a deadly addiction. In total, we estimate the tobacco tax increase would keep more than 230,000 young people from taking up smoking.

So to sum up: The President's early education proposal would improve opportunity for millions of children, make our workforce more globally competitive, and reduce use of social services. It would save lives that would be lost to tobacco addiction, and improve public health. And it would do all of this without adding a dime to the deficit.

And remember: This is not a partisan issue. There is bipartisan support. There is huge business and military support. So we can't afford not to invest in early education.

And I can tell you that this President and this Administration will continue to support the work you do, and all efforts to ensure that our youngest children get the support they need.

Thank you.

And now I'll now turn it over to my good friend, colleague, and great champion of our kids, Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

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