Remarks in Miami on Expanding Pre-K

Thank you all very much. It is such a pleasure to be here at North Beach and I want to thank superintendent Rudy Crew. I’ve known the superintendent for many years, worked with him when he was in New York and am delighted to have this chance to reconnect with him here in Miami. I want to thank the principal, Mr. Luther Grey for welcoming me. I have a little personal rule when I walk into a school and I’ve walked into probably by now thousands of schools over the years, just to get a feeling for what the school is like and if there are teachers around, to ask the teachers what its like, ask the students, if the parents are there ask them. And the real support and enthusiasm for this school is just palpable. And I’m so grateful for all of you being here and I wanted to commend not only the principal and all of the teachers but the entire school community; students and the parents and the family members who make this school work so well. This is a gift, my beautiful, beautiful necklace from two of the pre-k students, Sofia and Savannah and it matches my jacket so I had to wear it and it has my initials, so I’m feeling very dressed up today. I’m here to talk about an issue that I’ve been working on for a very long time, going back to when I was in law school and became concerned about how we cared for and educated our youngest children. Because I believe that we have to do our best with our children from the very beginning.

For thirty-five years as a lawyer and an advocate, as a friend lady and a Senator and most importantly as a Mom, I have been strongly in support of providing the tools to parents that would give parents an opportunity to recognize that they are their child’s first teachers and that the family is their child’s first school; because we have to have a strong partnership between our families and our schools and our society on behalf of our children. I’ve seen what happens when caring adults come together and make a commitment to insure that each child has a chance to fulfill his or her god-given potential. Years ago when my husband was governor of Arkansas, I brought a program to Arkansas from Israel that helped to train parents — mostly mothers and some grandmothers — about how to prepare their own children for school. We talked to them and helped them understand the importance of reading to their children, of talking to their children, of even using household objects to teach basic lessons; the difference between a spoon and a fork, for example. Because what we knew is that when children entered kindergarten or first grade, a lot of children who had a very good basic beginning by how they were raised and what they were exposed to, were so far ahead of other children who didn’t have that set of opportunities. I believe its important that we work as families to help to encourage them. To understand that things that seem very simple like talking to a child and reading to a child, lay the groundwork for brain development and for a child being able to do well later on.

I see this when I visited the Head Start programs, where children were learning to read and count and solve problems and work with each other, have a chance to develop the habits that we need in society so that people get along. We all know about the ‘terrible twos’ and we know about the sometimes rebellious fours and trying to figure out how to structure settings so kids can learn what it will take to be successful in this society is so important, not only for the children but for all of us. And early this morning, I was here in North Beach and met some of the pre-k children and teachers and then I just toured the three classrooms and I’m very impressed with the quality of interaction and instruction and with the lessons that children are learning. Not only the academic lessons, where I saw children circling all the letter H or all the letter G or doing the alphabet puzzles or using rhyming cards to begin to do what they need to understand words and get ready for reading, but also getting along with each other, respecting each other, something that we really need in the world today. And I think every child should have the same opportunity to learn and grow and develop at the four year olds here at North Beach are doing.

Because the fact is, we cannot succeed in the global economy today unless our children universally are given the best start in life and then can take advantage of education and enter the world ready to be productive. Obviously if you look at the entire education system there’s a lot of work we have to do. We have to make college more affordable and I’ve talked a lot about that. We have to make it possible for our teachers to have working conditions that give them the chance to be the best teachers we can be. There’s a lot of things we need to do to reform and change No Child Left Behind, which is an unfunded mandate on our school. But we all know that preparing children to attend college or to start a career, to get the skills they need, starts way earlier than that. I’m going to be proposing throughout my campaign, additional investments in even younger children; those 0-3 because parents need high quality child care and much more in the way of parental support in education about how to do best job they can. Today, fewer than 20% of our four year olds in America are in pre-K programs that are funded by our various states. That’s what I want to discuss because I think our educational system needs to be strengthened from start to finish, but we have to start where it all begins.

Today I’m announcing a proposal to establish universal pre kindergarten education; access to high quality pre-kindergarten for every single four year old in America. Our children are growing up in a world that is vastly more competitive and certainly a lot more technologically advanced than when most of us were those ages. I go into classrooms and it’s pretty much familiar to me because it looks exactly like looked when I was in elementary school and that was a long time ago. And we have a lot of working care, a lot of single moms supporting kids, we have a lot of differences now than what we used to have. So how do we help prepare all of our children to be as successful as they possibly can? I’ve talked to lots of teachers about what happens the first day of kindergarten, the first day of first grade. Some children arrive already knowing how to write their name, they know how to interact with their peers, they thrive in a structured environment. Others don’t; they are not even sure of how to fit in, or what they are supposed to do. They certainly don’t know how to spell their names, in fact some of them don’t even know their full name because they’ve been called by a nick name for so much of their lives. We can’t let that continue if we expect our children to be successful.

We can talk all we want about how public schools are great equalizers and engines of our meritocracy in America. But if children start school behind, it is likely they will stay behind and by the third or fourth grade they are already feeling like they don’t fit in. They are not comfortable, they are being labeled failures and I don’t think that’s what we want for our children. Many families cannot afford the kind of pre-k program on their own that I see here in this school. Many parents struggle to try to find somebody to take care of their children in a safe environment while they go to work. During the time that I was First Lady, I hosted a White House conference on child care and one on how the brain develops because it was becoming very clear that in the first give years of life, so much of the brain develops. You don’t think about that but that’s exactly what’s going on when children are making connections; their brains are making those connections, as well. And unfortunately we cut back in the last six years on investments in early childhood. This administration has not provided adequate funding for quality childcare; they’ve cut Head Start 11% in the last five years and unfortunately proposed to cut another 30,000 slots this year alone; nearly 1200 of them in Florida.

I don’t understand that because I really do believe that children deserve our attention and they deserve our resources and our investment. Too many children, though, and their needs are just not being seen in Washington today. If your child is sitting in a crumbling school and I’ve been in those; you’re invisible. If you’re a single mom who can’t afford safe, quality child care, you’re invisible, too. If you’re a family that works and can’t afford health care your child needs to have his eye checked or her teeth checked, you’re invisible, as well. If you’re a teacher who is not getting the respect and pay you deserve from the hard work you put in, you’re invisible. I think we shouldn’t allow anyone in America to be invisible and in order to do that we have to change our priorities as a nation. We should start with our youngest children. A lot of people say, well that’s a nice thing to do but what does that have to do with all the big problems we face in the world. In fact, some people, when I talk about the need to really help prepare children, they sort of say, well that’s a nice thing to be for, but kind of soft, I mean it’s not really that important, is it? But we know that it is.

Not only do we know that the brain develops in those early years and it is hard to imagine that some children come into Kindergarten or first grade knowing lots of words and knowing their meanings. That gives them a tremendous head start. Some children for whom English is not the first language, they struggle with that. So we have to work to do across the board. But it is not just the right thing to do or the nice thing to do. We now have lots of evidence from hard-headed economists that investing in early childhood makes sense. According to one study conducted by Nobel Prize winning economist James Heckman of the University of Chicago, you can close half the gaps in testing between African-American and white students that shows up at the end of high school if you have pre-school. You can also begin to deal with a lot of behavior problems that kids come into school with; these early years do not pre-ordain a child’s life. Many children from difficult and disadvantaged childhoods can become extraordinary adults, but this is a critical moment in time, and we are squandering it right now. I go to schools and I see so many children who just don’t fit in. They feel left out, they feel overwhelmed. Lots of times, the teachers are overwhelmed; there is not enough help in the school to give them the attention they need. So I’d like to make sure that we offer pre-kindergarten to every four-year old in America. And we should make it an offer, if not required, we should certainly encourage parents to do this and tell then what the facts are.

Children who attend pre-kindergarten are less likely to enroll in special education; they are less likely to drop out of high school. They are more likely to go on and graduate from college. They are less likely to be unemployed, and they are less likely to go on welfare. As Professor Heckman said: early learning begets later learning, and early success begets later success. And if you add up all the benefits, it’s is really astonishing. Another study done by the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis show that investing in early childhood shows an annual rate of return of between 7 and 18%. In other words, you put in a dollar in early childhood, you are going to get at least seven dollars back. And imagine if you could buy a stock with that kind of return. That is why a lot of business groups including the Committee on Economic Development support universal pre-kindergarten. And it is not only for our family budget, it is good for everybody’s budget. The cost of childcare, even if the childcare is frankly not that good, is pretty high these days, isn’t it? And think about the savings that families could have if pre-kindergarten was accessible as public kindergarten is.

It is also important to recognize that other countries are doing this. You know, a lot of our competitors really are starting earlier because they understand that they will get better results. It is also startling to realize that many people who plan what kinds of prisons have to be built and how big they need to be say they look at third grade readings course to project how many children will grow up into trouble, teenagers and adults and end up in the prison system. And we spend a lot of money on prisons in this country. If we could avoid spending money on prisons, we could certainly make our society better, and we can pay for this by cutting back on some of the expenditures that the current administration is doing. We could consistently fail to invest in what saves us money. I remember during the 1980s, the federal government was trying to immunize children during the 1970s, and in the 1980s that was all cut back. It was an attempt to save money. But what happened is because so many children weren’t immunized, there was measles epidemic between 1989 and 1991 that struck 55 000 people, killed 130 of them, many of their children and it cost the country 150 million dollars to cope with the measles epidemic.

So, it makes sense to try and prevent problems instead of paying for them. And we can do this by creating some cuts in programs that really don’t add up. In all of the assessments of how much this would cost, we believe that investing in pre-kindergarten now will end up saving the government about 191 billion dollars over time, in not having as many prisons, in having more productive adults who will make more money, in avoiding the cost of illiteracy and dropouts. So it is a pretty good investment and a lot of states understand that. We have about 29 states now that invest in pre-k. And recently here in Florida, six former governors of Florida and the wife of late Governor Lawton Chiles, all sides of different viewpoints signed a letter urging Florida to make good on the constitutional amendment that the people of Florida have voted for back in 2002.

See, Florida was way ahead of everybody, and the people of Florida were really in the vanguard of this, saying let’s provide a universal pre-K. And I want to start by investing 5 billion dollars in matching grant for the gold state. Now in a state like Florida which is already beginning to do this, the money would help you go to the next level, to make sure that there was a program everywhere of high quality. In order to receive the money, states would have to hire teachers with bachelor’s degrees who had specialized in early childhood development. They have to develop learning standards and curricula if they don’t already have them, and ensure low teacher-child ratios so that every child gets an individual attention that the child needs. And of course you would have to have to health and safety oversight that is required. I would also require states to coordinate with community based providers, work with Head Start. I am a big believer in Head Start and I had fought to protect Head Start and also, to early provide Head Starts so we can begin to help children who are particularly at risk. And if there are problems in having enough money, I would want the state to target the children who need it the most.

My daughter didn’t need it. We sent her to pre-school. We had her in pre-school program because we knew it would be good for her, to have the interaction with other children, to be with other adults besides her father and me. And we had some great experiences from that. We also ran into some challenges. There is a period of time when my daughter would only eat green grapes and Jelly sandwiches. And she took a bunch of green grapes and Jelly sandwiches to pre-school every day to eat during her break. And the state was monitoring the pre-school program and they had a supervisor from the state seeing how the children were treated and at the end of the week, the supervisor said to the head teacher ‘I think the program is very good but there is this one child who is really going to be poorly served. She may end up being mal-nourished because everyday she brings the same thing for lunch.’ So the head teacher said, well yeah I know, that is the Governor’s daughter [laughter] and that is what she is eating this week.’

Obviously, I thought it was worth doing it for my own child, and I think it is worth doing it for every child. I believe that we can increase our investments once we see that it works and when people say ‘where we will get the 5 billion dollars to start this program?’ There are so many to cut the money that is being spent in this government. Let’s start by cutting 500 000 off the contractors that the Bush administration had added, who don’t do a job that is held… [Applause].I think we can find a lot of other waste. Obviously we are spending more than half a trillion dollars on the Iraq war and when we finally end that, we are going to have to start getting ourselves out of deficit, but we need at the same time to make some investment that will help keep our country strong. So I am excited about doing this. [Applause].

Years ago, my first job out of law school was to work for the Children’s Defense Fund and it is one of the great jobs you could have because if you care about children’s futures, if you believe it is important to do everything possible to help them, there is no better place. And the Head of the Children Defense Fund Marian Wright Edelman once said “if we don’t stand for children, we don’t stand for much.” And I could not agree more. I saw these beautiful children here in this school today and every one of them has a divine spark inside, every one has the potential to be the kind of person that we all hope our children would grow up to be. Parents and family members have the first and primary responsibility, but then the rest of us have a role to play. That is why I wrote a book ten years ago called ‘It Takes a Village’, because you can be the best parent in the world and think you are doing the very best job, but your child is going to be affected by people you will know like teachers, and people you will never meet like police officers who try to keep the streets safe or people who check that the water you drink is safe. If we think about our responsibility for all our children, we will start making investments that will not only help our children but I believe really help us. So, today to stand up for our children, let’s do what is done here in this school. I am looking at these young people here wearing their North Beach shirts and I am still proud that they are going to a school that really values them and appreciates how important it is that we make good investments. I am a big believer in public education and I am not giving up on public education. I think public education is absolutely essential [Applause].

And one thing people rarely talk about is when you look at test scores and analyze assessments, private schools don’t do better than public schools, but a lot of people believe that because everything that happens in the public school is public information. If something bad happens in a public school, it is going to be in the newspaper, if something happens in a private school, you are not going to read about it. I think it is time that we really invest in our public schools, so let’s begin by investing more in our in our youngest children [Applause].

Thank you all very much.

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