By Linda K. Smith, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Early Childhood
In the next few weeks, there will be much written on the federal role for early childhood education. Policy and fiscal writers will tell the story of policies, programs and funding on behalf of young children since the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 and the creation of Head Start.
The most recent budget passed provides clear direction for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). The Administration for Children and Families at HHS has been charged with two roles: Ensuring high quality programs for young children beginning at birth and building a strong continuum of care and learning and working to make certain that these efforts are maintained by coordinating efforts with the Department of Education for successful transition to kindergarten and elementary school.
Many years ago, I worked for Senator Ted Kennedy on early childhood. When From Neurons to Neighborhoods: The Science of Early Childhood Development was released in 2000, the report that was guided by the Committee on Integrating the Science of Early Childhood Development (Jack P. Shonkoff, Chair and Deborah A. Phillips, Study Director), staff provided Senator Kennedy with the Executive Summary to read. This ground breaking research addressed how scientific advances can be used to shape early childhood policy, services and research.
The science demonstrated how early experiences clearly influence brain development, but a focus on birth to three begins too late and ends too soon. It is not surprising then, that following the weekend, Senator Kennedy asked for the full report (nearly 600 pages!).
In the years prior to the report, Senator Kennedy was a supporter of the Head Start legislation that included the development of Early Head Start. Early Head Start expanded the benefits of early childhood development to low-income families with children under age 3 and to pregnant women. Services are extended to eligible women during and after pregnancy and include parent training skills in child development, home based services, and screening and referral services for children with documented behavioral problems.
Sadly, Senator Kennedy is not here to see the strong support for the earliest years by this Administration and recently by Congress in the 2014 Omnibus Bill. President Obama has been an advocate for expanding access to high quality early childhood education and believes it is among the smartest investments that we can make. The White House webpage says “It helps to prevent achievement gaps before they start, and invests from an early age in children as our most critical national resource.”
We now have an opportunity to build on Head Start as the nation’s laboratory for high quality care and education services for low income children. The Early Head Start – Child Care Partnerships being developed will increase the quality of services for infants and toddlers. More infants and toddlers will have access to comprehensive services which include health, nutrition, social services and other services determined to be necessary by family needs assessments. There will be continued emphasis on the role of parents as their child’s first and most important teacher with family centered services enabling parents to best fulfill their roles. And, these partnerships can benefit all children at a center or family child care home, raising the quality of care for our youngest learners.
This is a historic time for early childhood education at the federal level. We will build on the lessons learned through the Designation Renewal System (DRS), Early Head Start-Family Child Care Partnership project, quality initiatives including the growth of Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS) in the states, Race to the Top - Early Learning Challenge, the State Advisory Councils and many other initiatives.
I look forward to working with you in the year ahead.
Look for information from the Office of Early Childhood as together we build and strengthen services for our children and families.