Sen. Murray proposes preschool initiative

Legislation aims to close gap in early learning

By Susan Parrish, Columbian education reporter

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Read the official summary of Strong Start for America’s Children]

U.S. Sen. Patty Murray spoke on the Senate floor Wednesday about proposed legislation that would pay for high-quality preschool for children from low-to-moderate income families.

Introduced in the Senate on Wednesday, the legislation builds on President Obama's State of the Union call to close the gap in early learning.

The Strong Start for America's Children Act would increase access to and the quality of early learning programs for children birth to age 5, Murray, D-Wash., said in a phone interview.

Despite shrinking budgets and tightening belts, Murray, a former preschool teacher and senior member of the Senate Education Committee, said she identifies this as one of her top legislative priorities.

"I had seen in my own classroom that when young children get the attention they need, they're miles ahead of their peers on the path to success," Murray said.

10-year initiative

The so-called "universal pre-K" bill is a 10-year initiative and it would be a voluntary program that would cost an estimated $30 billion in the first five years.

The bill proposes free, voluntary preschool for children whose families earn below 200 percent of the federal poverty rate. A family of four with an annual income of $46,100 would qualify.

Other provisions would require preschool teachers to hold a bachelor's degree rather than a two-year associate's degree. It also would nearly double the salary of preschool teachers to bring it into line with K-12 teacher salaries.

"While other countries are investing billions in early education, we can't allow any American children to fall behind, so I'm thrilled that members of both parties have come together to support access to quality early learning programs for every one of our kids."

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, sponsored the legislation. Murray, plus eight more Democrats in the Senate, are co-sponsors. The bill was introduced by Harkin and Reps. George Miller, D-Calif., and Richard Hanna, R-NY.

The legislation "has been received very well," Murray said. "It's not something that automatically polarizes people. It's bringing people together."

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