California Must Answer President Obama's Call to Invest in the Early Years

02.14.2013 | Huffington Post | Catherine Atkin

In an unprecedented move Tuesday night, President Obama used the power of his office to call for high-quality preschool for every child in America. The first time a U.S. president has ever mentioned preschool for all in a State of the Union address, President Obama's emphasis on the importance of early childhood education reinforces the national momentum towards investing public resources where we know it counts most: in children's earliest years.

To put children on a path to success in life, we must begin much earlier, focusing on learning from the moment a child is born, building on gains made in preschool and fortifying their educational development in the early elementary grades. The president highlighted the vast body of research showing the enormous benefits of investing in children's learning earlier in life, stating: "every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than seven dollars later on -- by boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, even reducing violent crime."

The president's clear recognition of the importance of getting every child ready for kindergarten must include a high-quality preschool experience, puts the wind in our sails in California. As a state, we are well-positional to leverage additional dollars for quality outcomes. In 2011, California won the federal government's Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge and with this grant we are developing a tiered quality rating system to encourage early childhood programs to deliver quality teaching and instructional materials that give children the skills they need to enter kindergarten.

Despite limited resources, California has innovated in early childhood education. In 2010, our state passed the Kindergarten Readiness Act, changing the kindergarten entry date so that children enter kindergarten at age five and establishing transitional kindergarten (TK), a new grade serving those younger students with birthdays between September and December. Previously, California's children started kindergarten at a younger age than kids in almost any other state -- often without the maturity, social skills and early-academic skills they need to succeed in kindergarten and beyond. With districts around the state enthusiastically implementing transitional kindergarten this year, California is striving to ensure children enter kindergarten ready to learn and prepared to succeed.

At yet, while California is making great progress, we have a long way to go in fully meeting our youngest learners' educational needs. Early education programs in California have suffered $1 billion in cuts since the 2008-2009 fiscal year, and more than 110,000 children have been lost out on preschool and childcare.

In the weeks and months to come, we will work with our State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, and superintendents, educators, legislators and fellow advocates across the state, to seize the moment to build on California's successes. We will take up the President's challenge to ensure that every child born in California, no matter their family income or circumstance, starts out with a fair shot to succeed in school and in life.

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