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Education Secretary Arne Duncan Tells Louisville: Early Childhood Expansion Would Solve Problems

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was in Louisville on Thursday to push a proposed expansion of early childhood programs that, he argues, would have a wide-ranging effect on the nation's economy and even crime rates.The idea is pretty straight forward: Children who enter Kindergarten with basic skillsare more likely to do well in school and become productive members of society.The problem is that many children aren't prepared for Kindergarten.“When you talk about the average disadvantaged child entering, starting Kindergarten at 5, a year to a year and a half behind, and then we wonder why we have achievement gaps, we wonder why we have dropouts, we wonder why have folks getting locked up eventually," said Duncan, who took part in a roundtable discussion at the St. Benedict Center for Early Childhood Education in west Louisville.“I’m just convinced that as a country we have to get out of the catch-up business."A 2011 study found that about half of Kentucky's pre-K kids weren't in organized programs, said Terry Tolan, executive director of the Governor's Office of Early Childhood.President Obama has a proposal that advocates say could improve early childhood development—and all their odds of reaching those other achievement milestones as they grow.But it's pricey. The plan would dramatically increase access to preschool for kids from low- and moderate-income families, Duncan said. It would also cost $75 billion, which under the proposal would be paid for through a tobacco tax hike.The panel discussion also included Mayor Greg Fischer, Attorney General Jack Conway, Jefferson County Public Schools Superintendent Donna Hargens, The Rev. Cynthia Campbell from Highland Presbyterian Church and others representing economic development, the military and more.(You can listen to the discussion below, if you're so inclined.)The idea of having a wide array of people on the roundtable was to underscore Duncan's argument that expansion of early childhood programs could have a wide-ranging impact.For instance, Conway shared an anecdote from his time working in the Patton Administration, when he first heard that Kentucky prison officials use third-graders' test scores to determine how many beds they'll need in the future.Duncan honed in on that.“I can’t tell you how many states—they literally talk about how they build prisons based on third-grade scores," Duncan told the audience. "What I’ve not found a state yet that talks about how they’re going to expand community college and four-year access because third-grade scores are going through the roofs. And we have to change that conversation."We make those choices very easy with no public debate. We try and get a little bit more money to avoid that and actually have a productive tax-paying citizen and that becomes a tough, touch conversation. So our values are wrong. We have to really challenge ourselves about what do we actually value. Do we want to keep building prisons or do we want to have 55,000 more young people graduate from college.”The panelists noted that expanding educational opportunities means more collaboration among groups and agencies, more direct contact with parents. But also more money.On a related note, Tolan said after the panel that Obama's plan (which would need Congressional approval, which, as all things, is an open question) would salve the recent cuts to the state subsidy program for low-incoming working parents to pay for child care.(For more on that, read Devin Katayama's story from yesterday, and mine on the Child Care Assistance Program cuts from several months ago.)Listen to the panel discussion below:

Joseph Lord is the online managing editor for WFPL.

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