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Congresswoman Norton: “The earliest years of childhood are critical for brain development, which means that every child should have access to the benefits of an early childhood education.”
Photo: Wikimedia Commons

D.C Delegate to Congress Eleanor Norton has introduced universal pre-kindergarten legislation to aid working American families.

Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC) today announced she will introduce her Universal Prekindergarten and Early Childhood Education Act, which would use federal grants to encourage public school systems to provide universal, prekindergarten to every child, regardless of income.

The bill would afford the benefits of early childhood education to America’s working poor, lower-middle-class and middle-class families, many of whom have been left out of this essential education for their children.

“The earliest years of childhood are critical for brain development, which means that every child should have access to the benefits of an early childhood education,” Norton said. “Just as providing K-12 education is essential, universal prekindergarten is an investment that we must make as a nation to ensure every child has the opportunity to succeed.”

Norton’s bill fills the prekindergarten education gap by using existing public school infrastructure and standards for public school teachers, which would make prekindergarten more affordable and more accessible. Norton’s bill would institutionalize prekindergarten, like kindergarten today, in publicly funded schools for parents who desire it.

Norton’s full introductory statement is below.

Madam Speaker, today, I introduce a bill similar to one I have introduced in six previous Congresses, the Universal Prekindergarten and Early Childhood Education Act of 2019. My bill would establish and expand prekindergarten programs in public and public charter schools for three- and four-year-old children. The District of Columbia has made considerable strides since I first introduced this bill, but today’s bill is still needed for the nation to fill a gap in the “Every Student Succeeds Act,” which addresses elementary and secondary education, but ignores the prekindergarten years, the most critical years for children’s brain development.

My bill seeks a breakthrough in public education by providing funding for states to add prekindergarten for children at three and four years of age, like kindergarten programs for five-year olds now routinely available in public schools. This bill would eliminate major shortcomings of unevenly available “day care” and, importantly, would take advantage of the safe facilities required in public schools. Unless early education becomes a necessary part of a child’s education, it almost surely will continue to be unavailable to the majority of families with children.

My bill provides federal funds to states, which must be matched by at least 20 percent of a state’s own funds, to establish or expand universal, voluntary prekindergarten in public and public charter schools for three- and four-year-olds, regardless of income. The classes, which would be full-day and run throughout the entire school year, must be taught by teachers who possess equivalent or similar qualifications to those teaching other grades in the school. The funds would supplement, not supplant, other federal funds for early childhood education. The unique money-saving aspect of my bill is that it uses the existing public-school infrastructure and trained teachers to make early childhood education available to all, saving billions of dollars for its implementation.

The success of Head Start and other prekindergarten programs, combined with new scientific evidence concerning the importance of brain development in early childhood, virtually mandate the expansion of early childhood education to all children today. Early learning programs have been available only to the affluent, who can afford them, and to some low-income families in programs such as Head Start, which would be unaffected by my bill. My bill provides a practical way to universal, public preschool education for the majority of families. The goal of the bill is to afford the benefits of early childhood education to the American working poor, lower-middle-class and middle-class families, most of whom have been left out of this essential education for their children.

We cannot afford to allow the most fertile years for childhood development to pass unenriched. My bill responds both to the great needs of parents who seek early childhood education, as well as to today’s brain science, which shows that a child’s brain development begins much earlier than had been previously understood.

Considering the staggering cost of day care, the inaccessibility of early childhood education and the opportunity that early education offers to improve a child’s chances of success, schooling for three- and four-year-olds is overdue. The absence of viable options for working families demands our immediate attention.

My bill reflects what jurisdictions throughout the nation increasingly are trying to accomplish. The District of Columbia, for example, has achieved an extensive integration of early childhood education as part of a larger effort to improve D.C. public schools. A recent report highlighted the economic benefits of early childhood education, emphasizing its role in expanding job opportunities and decreasing the amount of money spent on programs to address teen pregnancy and crime.

I strongly urge my colleagues to support this legislation.

Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton is Washington D.C.'s Delegate to Congress

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