When Sen. Tom Harkin asked a panel of education experts at a Thursday Senate committee hearing how they would improve the country's public schools, he was surprised by what they didn't say.
A Harvard University professor said he would improve “assessments," a Stanford University economist mentioned teacher evaluations, and a public policy expert called for a national high school exam modeled on the French Baccalaureate.
Harkin (D-Iowa) saw an omission. “Early learning,” he said. “Are we doing enough in the early years to get kids ready for school?”
Experts almost invariably answer no. At the hearing Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), a familiar face among education professionals, said that Head Start, by far the country’s biggest early childhood program, reaches only half of eligible children.
In fact, the most up-to-date data tell an even more dire story: Just 30 percent of eligible children participate in the program, and only 2 percent are enrolled in Early Head Start, a service for families with infants and toddlers.
That's why Harkin, who chairs the Senate education committee, said he plans to introduce a bill that would increase access to early learning. "We know that 80 percent of a child’s brain develops between birth and the age of 5 -- much of their intellect, personality and skills are developed before they begin kindergarten," Harkin wrote in a statement to The Huffington Post.
Nancy Maxwell agrees. A mother of two who works as a toll-booth operator on the New York State Thruway, was among children's advocates who convened earlier this week at New York's City Hall to speak out against Mayor Michael Bloomberg's decision to decrease the number of slots in early child care and after-school programs.
Maxwell's son Kenneth was a little older than 2 when she noticed that he didn't speak well and didn't like playing with other children. She enrolled him in a Head Start after-school program, where he received hours of attention from a speech therapist and a special education teacher who he called his "buddy for the day."
He started "opening up more and more," and now, at 8, plays baseball and football and reads on a sixth-grade level, she said.
Research suggests that Kenneth is no anomaly. By age 3, children who participate in Early Head Start have larger vocabularies, and show a higher degree of social and emotional maturity than the control group. Kids who enter kindergarten without early learning experience are less likely than their peers to eventually join the middle class.
But despite some pre-K success stories, recent audits have found existing programs to be inconsistent at best. According to a recent GAO report, half of all child service workers and one fifth of preschool teachers don't have high school diplomas.
Eric Hanushek, a Stanford economist who testified at the committee hearing, spoke against more early childhood education funding.
"We already do invest a lot .... It just hasn’t yielded the results that we might want," Hanushek told Harkin. "Yes, early childhood education is important, but that's not going to solve our K-12 education problems."
But Harkin has consistently championed more early childhood education, and recently tried to revamp No Child Left Behind, the country's sweeping K-12 education law. After winning the approval of the Senate education committee in the fall , however, it stalled.
Harkin's new bill is aimed at expanding the middle class through a variety of investments -- infrastructure, workforce training, as well as early childhood education.
The bill, which he plans to roll out by the end of the month, would beef up the Child Care and Development Block Grant, a $5 billion federal fund that helps poor families access child care. It would also tie cash to stricter quality controls. Harkin's team contends that more childcare will also enable more parents to look for jobs and, hopefully, work.
Given the current partisan climate, the effort might seem just political, designed to burnish the senator’s liberal credentials instead of a feasible blueprint for reform. But education advocates are happy for the opportunity to broach the conversation about the youngest children.
“It's a long and expensive proposition to really get quality services out there,” says Patricia Cole, the director of government relations for Zero to Three, an organization that advocates for young children. “And yet we know in the long run it will pay off.”