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U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan Advocates For Pre-K At Kansas City School

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan stopped at Kansas City’s Woodland Early Learning Community Monday morning to advocate for high-quality preschool for low-income families.

“We have to make sure our babies are entering kindergarten ready to be successful,” Duncan said. “In education, we spend lots of time playing catch-up, and frankly we don’t often play catch-up well.”

Duncan says the average child from a disadvantaged neighborhood starts school at least a year behind. In Missouri, 80 percent of 4-year-olds don’t have access to a high quality early education program.

President Obama called for preschool for all in his 2013 State of the Union address, but funding for the initiative has been hard won. Only half of the states who applied for the last round of preschool development grants got one, and Duncan said Monday he’s worried Congress will zero out the budget.

“There’s nothing I think political — Republican, Democrat — about helping babies get off to a good start,” Duncan said.

Duncan added it’s critically important to get the business community to recognize the importance of early childhood education.

“It’s appalling the number of our students that can’t read at grade level in the third grade,” said Jim Heeter of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce, which made kindergarten readiness one of its “Big 5” initiatives last year. “As everybody in this room knows, if you can’t read at grade level at third grade, your chances for success in our society are diminished.”

Mayor Sly James has also actively promoted school readiness through his Turn the Page KC reading program.

“We know for a fact that early childhood education pays huge dividends,” James said. “We have not as a country made the commitment that is necessary to fund that.”

James praised the many community partnerships that make early learning programs like the one at Woodland successful. Getting kids before kindergarten helps Kansas City Public Schools identify any learning disabilities as well as point families toward other resources available to them.

“This is not just about education opportunity, it’s about ending cycles of poverty,” Duncan said.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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