Lawmakers go to the mat for early learning

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"Hungry Hungry Hippos" is usually Washington, D.C.'s, game of choice (often played by K Street lobbyists who end up grabbing most of the marbles); but that wasn't the case on Sept. 18, when several U.S. senators and representatives joined kids and their parents on the Capitol lawn for a ginormous game of "Chutes and Ladders," something organizers hope will be a real game-changer when it comes to getting Congress serious about investing in high-quality, affordable early learning for millions of American families.

Hula Hoop

The event, put together by the National Women's Law Center and the advocacy group MomsRising, drew an impressive roster of players on a 40-by-40-foot mat where the rules were simple: Get behind fully funded options for all of America's early learners and everybody wins; miss those opportunities, and our national prospects go down the chute in a heartbeat.

"Every child should have access to affordable, high-quality early learning," said Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner, co-founder of MomsRising. "Now is the time to step up."

AFT staffers and families also participated in the event. And laced through the crowd of kids cavorting on the game board were some pretty big names in town, including Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Bob Casey (D-Pa.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.), and Reps. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), George Miller (D-Calif.) and Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.).

Much on the minds of the adults at the event were two big pieces of legislation: reauthorization of the Child Care and Development Block Grant, which just cleared committee in the Senate, and President Obama's State of the Union proposal for new investments in high-quality child care and early education. Several lawmakers said Congress must act expeditiously on both fronts—particularly at a time when federal sequestration is causing 57,000 children to lose out on Head Start.

"The cost of lost opportunities is immense compared to what these pre-K programs cost," said Harkin.

Debbie Wasserman Schultz

"The evidence is clear; we know the benefits that come to children and families" when the nation steps up its investment in early learning, Miller said. "The benefits come back to us as a society. The benefits come back to us as taxpayers."

"It's a moral imperative that we make sure these kids have the best possible start in life," said Wasserman Schultz (shown at right). "We are going to fight every single day" to make sure legislation moves forward.

"Sequestration is really hurting a lot of the programs" and jeopardizing efforts to close the achievement gap in schools, said Murray. "The investments that we make today are what will make our country stronger" for years to come.

The Chutes and Ladders game wasn't the only early learning event on the Hill that day. Sept. 18 also marked the release of a collection of personal stories—delivered to members of Congress—about the positive contribution that early childhood education makes in the lives of Americans. As part of a coalition of groups that helped gather the narratives, the AFT asked its members to share their stories, and the response was heartening.

More than 140 stories are included in the publication that detail the value of early childhood education in the lives of AFT members and their families—and the constructive difference that early learning makes to society as a whole. Read the publication online.

[Mike Rose/Michael Campbell photos]

September 19, 2013