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Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC

Mr. President, this is a special week. The Week of the Young Child, launched by the National Association for the Education of Young Children in 1971 and carried out in communities across the country, is a time to raise public awareness about the importance of high-quality early childhood education and to recognize the millions of people who care for and teach young children every day.

The theme of this year's Week of the Young Child is "early years are learning years.'' Research is compelling that children are ready to learn from birth--what they need are the positive conditions and opportunities to learn and thrive not only to be prepared for school but to prepare to be productive adults.

Early childhood education is about development and learning, but it is also an economic driver. Nobel laureate James Heckman and others note that when we invest in high-quality early childhood education, starting with infants, the taxpayer benefits from lower expenditures for special and remedial education, reduced juvenile crime rates, and higher graduation rates.

Even though we know about the importance of early childhood education, for many families the costs are too much for the family budget, especially high-quality programs. The child care and development block grant, helping families afford childcare and helping states raise the quality of care, serves only one in six eligible children. In fact, roughly 260,000 fewer children received assistance in 2012 than in 2006. I am glad we ended the cuts to Head Start in fiscal year 2014, but even so, we help less than half of the eligible preschoolers and only 4 percent of eligible Early Head Start infants and toddlers. State pre-K is growing, but it is uneven quality among our States and doesn't reach all the eligible children whose families would want to enroll them. Early intervention services--a significant intervention for children's early school readiness--is woefully underfunded as well.

The educators who work with these young children in childcare, Head Start and other program settings are very underpaid. A childcare provider makes about $20,000 a year. The turnover rate is high. When teachers get a degree, they can move to better jobs to support their own families, but it means inconsistency of relationships for children and difficulty sustaining quality for providers. We must do more to ensure early childhood educators get the specialized degrees and credentials they need and then compensate them on par with their school-based colleagues.

In my State of Alaska, one snowy night over a year ago in Anchorage, I met with about 50 strongly committed Alaska educators to talk about how to improve our schools and prepare our students for the competitive 21st-century economy.

From that conversation, the idea for three bills evolved. I then introduced a package of legislation, the Keep Investing in Developmental Success, KIDS, Act. These three early childhood bills will address access, quality, and affordability in early education programs.

First, we will amend the Tax Code to provide a tax credit for early childhood educators. The Tax Relief for Early Educators Act will expand the deductions for certain expenses for early childhood education and increase the childcare tax credit so more parents can afford to put their children in quality early child development programs.

Second, we will create a new student loan forgiveness program for graduates of associate's or bachelor's programs in early education. The Preparing and Reinvesting in Early Education Act--or PRE ED--will provide needed relief for early educators and encourage more to work with kids through age 5. Well-trained educators providing quality early education makes all the difference in a child's success.

Third, we need to reward companies offering onsite or near-site childcare with a company cost-share. We know it works for the company and for the employee--just look around our State. In Alaska BP, Credit Union One and Fairbanks Memorial Hospital are great examples. They all offer quality onsite centers. They know it makes more productive employees.

The Child Care Public-Private Partnership Act will establish a program to provide childcare through partnerships. Through new grant incentives for small and medium companies, we can help more Alaska companies do the same.

These bills recognize the importance of childcare in the lives of working families. They will make it easier for early childhood educators to provide stimulating and effective instruction in safe environments

As we recognize and celebrate this week of the young child, we need to be perfectly clear in our commitment to continue to support and expand the education of children. I believe all of my colleagues in the Senate should join together to make this a priority because, as this year's theme says so well, the early years are indeed the learning years.

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