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National Press Club on the Early Learning Council (Feb. 28, 2011)

I appreciate the opportunity to speak to you today about our initiative to improve early childhood success in Oregon.  It is a core priority for my administration, and I’m convinced strategic and sustained investment in children aged 0-5 is the key to achieving our state’s education and economic objectives.

I especially want to thank Swati Adarkar of the Children’s Institute, who is here today.  Swati played a key role on my transition team on Early Childhood and Family Investment, whose report lays the groundwork for a new approach to early childhood services in Oregon.  It offers a blueprint for unifying disparate programs, streamlining administrative costs and measuring outcomes to ensure that every child enters school ready and able to learn, enters first grade ready to read and leaves first grade reading.

Oregon faces similar economic and budget challenges to other states, highlighted by stubborn unemployment and a serious state budget deficit…but our response is different.

We have not lost sight of our shared vision to create a state where our children are ready to learn before they get to school; where they have the resources and attention to learn and our teachers have the time and support to teach; where drop-out rates are steadily falling and graduation rates are steadily rising; where all Oregon high school graduates are prepared to pursue a post-secondary education without remediation; and where 80 percent of them achieve at least two years of post-secondary education or training. We are committed to creating an economy that produces family wage jobs and career pathways that lead to those jobs; and where the average per capita income exceeds the national average in every region.

And we can’t wait for better times to begin reinvesting in our future. 

Oregon’s budget shortfall represents an opportunity to change and improve the way the state does business today.  We have to act now, because our current systems for delivering Oregonians critical services they need – from education to health care to public safety – are not sustainable.

Even the rosiest state revenue projections can’t keep pace with the rising costs of health care, human services and corrections or the siloed and outdated system we have for funding public education. 

Successful investment in the developmental needs of our children is the key to shifting state spending from dealing with the back end results of neglect and abuse to front end investment in people and prevention.

We need a new approach.  And restructuring how early childhood services are delivered – around outcomes for kids – is the foundation.

Far too many Oregon children are growing up without the family and community supports to be successful, independent learners. 

Every year, 45,000 children are born in Oregon.  Forty percent of these children are exposed to a well-recognized set of socio-economic, physical or relational risk factors which adversely impact their ability to develop the foundations of school success. These risk factors include poverty, unstable family backgrounds, substance abuse, criminal records and negative peer associations.  

Overcoming these challenges early is the key to avoiding and having to pay for the all-too-familiar problems down the road: social dependency and/or involvement in the criminal justice system.

However, Oregon’s system for early childhood services is neither integrated nor accountable and must change to more efficiently and effectively prepare children for school and reduce downstream social service costs.

  • $760 million/biennium in state tax dollars is spent on early childhood services across six state agencies and dozens of programs that are not coordinated, don’t measure outcomes consistently and are disconnected from the K-12 education system and health services.
  • The average cost per child served is nearly $15,000 per biennium, and less than half the estimated 108,000 children who need support are getting it.
  • Only 25-33% of at-risk children will meet state reading benchmarks in the next two years.

I have targeted three areas for policy and system change to achieve the goal of ensuring that every child enters school ready and able to learn, enters first grade ready to read and leaves first grade reading. 

First: Early Identification and Support - We need to:

  • ensure early identification of families and children for critical indicators of risk; and
  • establish neighborhood catchment areas at elementary school sites where a Family Support Manager will coordinate support services for families and children.

Second: Shared Measurement and Accountability – We must:

  • convert current contracts with early childhood service providers to performance-based contracts with accountability for reaching identified goals;
  • require outcome measures for developmental domains:  child health; child language, literacy and learning; social-emotional and cognitive development; and family and support development;
  • adopt a kindergarten readiness assessment; and
  • deploy an integrated, statewide, child-based data system to track expenditures and return on investment – must link health and school readiness data to later school experience.

Third: Budget and Governance – I’ve proposed:

  • creating an Early Learning Council to consolidate and streamline existing programs and funding streams with a Director in the Governor’s Office.
  • I named a design team last week that will begin working immediately with stakeholders to have the new model up and running in the second year of this biennium.

We have set ambitious but achievable goals for a revamped system:

  • Within two years, at least 60,000 children will be served – a 50% increase.
  • At least 70% of children served will meet state benchmarks for kindergarten and first grade by 2020.
  • The average cost per child served will be reduced by 30% to $5225 per child per year.

Finally, the Early Learning Council is just the first step in creating a seamless 0-20 education and funding and governance system – from early childhood through K-12 and post-secondary education and training – that provides better outcomes for our children, more resources for educators and a more prosperous future for our state.

The changes I’m recommending are significant.  Many of them will be difficult to make. However, with the appropriate investment, successful service delivery and accountability for defined outcomes, children will enter our education system with the skills and developmental assets required to complete their education and enter the workforce.  Our investment will be returned through productive, responsible citizens; and through reduced costs in social dependency public safety.

I’m confident in our ability to meet the challenge.


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