Californians Take Early Learning Message to Congress

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A broad segment of California's early childhood education community crossed the continent on Sept. 28 to highlight the profound economic, educational and social benefits that spring from high-quality education opportunities for all young learners—advantages that can only be maintained in lean budget times if Congress remains a vital partner in this effort.

Early childhood briefing on Capitol Hill

Sandra Weese of the California Federation of Teachers, at right, speaks at a Capitol Hill briefing while Kris Perry from First 5 California and Fresno superintendent Larry Powell look on.

  The AFT and the California Federation of Teachers took part in the coalition, which traveled from the Golden State to Washington, D.C., for face-to-face meetings with California lawmakers and congressional staffers. The visiting delegation was coordinated by Preschool California, a nonprofit early learning advocacy group in the state, and included voices as diverse as a Fresno County public school administrator and the manager of a Southern California gas utility. Together, coalition members led a presentation at the U.S. Capitol on the state of early learning in California—an event that underscored how progressive federal efforts to support early learning have broad constituent appeal back home.

Congress deserves high marks for making early learning a priority under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), said several speakers at the Capitol Hill briefing. They described how desperately needed resources made possible through stimulus funding had become a lifeline for early learning in communities across California and around the nation. However, that commitment will be scaled back to pre-stimulus levels if Congress, as expected, is compelled to keep the government operating through stopgap measures known as continuing resolutions. Once the budget impasse is broken, it is imperative that Congress put progress back on track—renewing its strong support for early learning in future budget rounds, several of the California speakers told lawmakers and congressional staff.

Nowhere is the support for high-quality, accessible early learning opportunities stronger than in the teaching ranks, said Sandra Weese, early childhood education organizing project director for the California Federation of Teachers, who spoke to the Hill audience. "Teachers have been telling us for years that it makes a difference" when children come to school healthy, confident and prepared to learn, Weese said. The AFT and its affiliates "have a long history and commitment to strong communities that offer a world-class education to kids, beginning at birth. We will work with groups to make it a reality."

A key piece of that vision is professional compensation for early childhood educators, Weese stressed. That means an end to the climate where "those who care for our cars and animals earn more than those who educate our youngest children."

Kris Perry, executive director of the advocacy group known as First 5 California, said that a strong federal role was essential in California, a state where budget crises have had "a dramatic effect on early learning and the social safety net." She detailed how ARRA "dollars have helped California move forward, and we have some great outcomes to show for it."

The educators who visited Capitol Hill invited lawmakers to examine "how pre-K fits into the larger education dialogue," Preschool California president Catherine Atkin told the audience. Early learning "is an issue that resonates with voters," she said, and strong programs for the youngest learners are "something that makes sense for kids, for policy and is something for [elected leaders] to care about." [Mike Rose/Photo by Michael Campbell.]

September 28, 2010