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Education secretary: Early childhood programs key to state, nation

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Investing in early childhood development reduces the dropout rate, teen pregnancy and prison costs while producing a better-educated workforce, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said Tuesday.

“Wherever I go, there is huge, huge need,” Duncan said after visiting an inner-city school district’s early childhood education center.

But too often that need goes unaddressed because states don’t provide programs that prepare children for school, he said.

“Thousands of children whose parents want them to have the opportunity to enter kindergarten ready and prepared but are denied that simply because they don’t have those opportunities – there is something fundamentally unfair and unjust about that,” Duncan said.

Duncan joined Gov. Doug Ducey to visit the Roosevelt School District’s Martin Luther King Jr. Early Childhood Center and met with representatives of groups with a stake in education to discuss the need for high-quality preschools.

The center will benefit from a federal Preschool Development Grant providing Arizona with $20 million to develop preschool programs benefiting families with low and mid-level incomes. It will add 133 classrooms serving 3,478 children in 15 communities by 2018, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

“Research shows that a quality early child education experience can yield significant long term benefits and overall development of a child,” Ducey said at a news conference with Duncan. “From academic achievement, educational progression and long-term quality of life, these all center around access to early learning environments and literary interventions.”

Duncan said the need to improve early childhood education is among the reasons the Obama administration wants Congress to revamp No Child Left Behind to better prepare children for college and careers, protect historically underserved populations and give educators more resources.

“Right now, back in Washington, folks are working together, in a bipartisan way we hope, Republicans and Democrats in both houses, to fix the broken and outdated No Child Left Behind law,” Duncan said. “They have to incorporate high-quality urban learning into that.”

Debbie Everett, principal of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center, said the school has a long waiting list and that 50 percent of the students have identified special needs, which stretches resources thin.

The school, which is partly funded by the federal Head Start program and Arizona’s First Things First program, received at least $300,000 this year from the federal Preschool Development Grant, Everett said.

“This grant means that the district is able to do more, the school is able to do more,” she said. “To me, it’s a huge sign of support for these kinds of things, that the state is supporting this and allowing this to continue to work.”