Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a former preschool teacher, will unveil a major push for expanding early education in a speech at the Center for American Progress Tuesday.
She will outline a bill she is drafting along with Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Robert Casey (D-Pa.), and Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) that mirrors an Obama administration proposal to increase preschool access.
"In recent years, our budget debate has been too focused on averting artificial crises," Murray said in prepared remarks. “This has made it extremely difficult to focus on policies that confront real, long-term problems, like maintaining our leadership in the 21st century and continuing to grow our middle class. Expanding access to quality early childhood education is exactly this kind of policy.”
Murray will stress the potential of early childhood education to close achievement gaps that start early in life. “Just a few weeks ago, a teacher in Washington state told me that while some of her students are practicing writing their names on their work, others still need to learn how to hold a pencil," Murray said. "So those children are, even at a very early age, already playing catch-up.”
Research has shown profound neural developmental benefits of high-quality preschools. Still, Murray said the U.S. hasn't done much to expand preschools. "We have no national strategy to increase participation in early childhood education," she said "Our country ranks 28th in the proportion of 4-year-olds enrolled in prekindergarten, and 25th in public funding for early learning."
Murray's push comes amid advocacy from the Obama administration in the issue. As HuffPost was first to report, Obama is seeking to create a public pre-K program that would partner with states to fund early education slots for all low-income five-year-olds over the next 10 years. Obama proposed the initiative during his 2013 State of the Union address, and the administration has since said it would seek to fund it with a tobacco tax increase.
Since then, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been barnstorming Republican states, pitching the plan to governors friendly to pre-K. But there is little hope for the plan in the tough economy and the toxic Congress. Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), who sits on the House education committee, told HuffPost that he can't see the House creating a new, expansive program due to the realities of the current sequestration cuts and Rep. Paul Ryan's (R-Wis.) snip-happy budget proposal. "It'll come down to a resource question," he said in an interview.
Murray said she realizes preschool expansion is a long shot. "I think we also appreciate how difficult it’s going to be to get some of my colleagues on board," she said in her prepared remarks. "I’m ready to get to work -- but I’m going to need your help."
Her plan reflects the Obama proposal. It is based on the principles that all students need preschool access; that "highly-trained teachers" and small class sizes are key; and that the programs would be tied to K-12 schools. Her proposals have garnered positive statements from groups such as the National Women's Law Center and the National Association for the Education of Young Children.
“Recently as we’ve moved from one artificial crisis to the next, we’ve been making the wrong choice," Murray said in her remarks. "We’ve let short-term thinking get in the way of long-term progress. To make the right choice, our country’s challenges, rather than arbitrary deadlines, must guide our decision-making."