Doggett, a Texas native, was appointed in late August 2013 to replace Jacqueline Jones, the first person to hold the post created by President Barack Obama in November 2011.
Doggett began her career in the classroom as a first grade teacher in Austin. She has since worked with the National Head Start Association and most recently led The Pew Charitable Trust’s campaign to expand home visiting programs for expectant mothers and mothers with young children living in poverty. Doggett is married to Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas. Rep. Doggett is the ranking member on Human Resources, a subcommittee of the Committee on Ways and Means, which deals with child care, foster care and adoption among other issues.
Doggett said she brings a “deep understanding of all aspects of the early learning field” to her job at the Department of Education.
Doggett sat down with EdSource at an Education Writers Association conference on early education in New Orleans. Excerpts from the interview are below.
EdSource Today: Can you start by explaining what is so important to you about early learning?
Libby Doggett: The research is really clear that these are important years in a child’s life, and I think we’ve been wasting them in many cases. It isn’t just pre-K. It’s a birth to (age) 5, or even birth to (age) 8 system that needs to be in place to get kids off to the best start.
EdSource: In your new position as the Assistant Secretary for Early Education, what would you say is your top priority in the next two years?
Doggett: The president’s agenda of preschool for all is my No. 1 priority because we want to take a giant leap forward and not just grow these (state-funded preschool) programs incrementally.
There’s a lot of work that needs to be done with kindergarten, first and second grades. Those grades have been largely ignored. They’re very, very important. So we’re focusing on those at the Department of Education as well.
We are also working on an inter-agency policy board that Linda Smith from the Department of HHS ACF (Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families) runs. She and I co-chair the board. We’re looking at how can we bring the Department of Education programs and HHS’s programs closer together.
EdSource: You mentioned Obama’s agenda and proposal to have preschool for all. That’s gotten a lot of resistance. People don’t want to start a new program, especially Republicans in Washington, D.C. Do you have any sense that that might be overcome?
Doggett: I think it’s too soon to tell. There’s another election next fall. There’ll be some major changes in Congress. (U.S. Secretary of Education) Arne Duncan is not giving up. Early learning is one of our major priorities.
You have 30 states that have increased their funding for pre-K over the last year. That’s bipartisan traction. That’s Republican governors and Democratic governors saying, “This is important enough that I’m going to put new money in.” And some of them are starting new programs. So I think we will overcome (the resistance). It may take a year or two.
Frankly, I think the resistance is that this is something that the president cares about. The name “Obama” seems to carry some weight with lots of people, and unfortunately with the Republicans it seems to be a detriment.
EdSource: There are universal preschool programs, which are really more focused on targeting for lower-income families. Then there are universal programs like the proposal to expand transitional kindergarten in California that would be for all 4-year-olds. What do you think is a better path?
Doggett: Of course, I’m very excited about what’s happening in California. I think the transitional kindergarten program is truly the way we need to go in all states.
I believe, and this is me talking personally, that pre-K for all children is best. We all learn more from each other, or as much from each other, as we do from a teacher. Having children in a class that’s more mixed is good. Middle-income families have to pay a whole lot for high-quality programs, as much as $12,000 to $20,000 a year. They could be putting that away for college.
And since we know the research is right, that these are the most important years, why aren’t we (providing preschool) for every child? The Obama plan is to provide states funding for children (living in families who earn) up to 200 percent (of the federal poverty level). (Editor’s note: The federal poverty level for a family of four is $23,850 in annual income.) That’s a great start. And I think when that happens, states will be able to put in the funding that they’re currently putting in to provide for those middle-income families as well.
EdSource: What can states expect from the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant program this year?
Doggett: It’s $250 million. If you look at the congressional language, they’re saying this should be for preschool development grants either for states that don’t have much (of a preschool program) or for states that really want to take (their preschool programs) to the next level.
We’re negotiating with HHS because they will jointly oversee this, and with the White House, and with Congress to make sure what we hear is what they intended.
We obviously also really want to hear from the field. So we are designing an outreach program where we will put a blog up, have people respond to that, then have some meetings where people can come in and tell us what they think.
EdSource: And is it fair to say that the Early Learning Challenge grants, this time around, are going to be similar to what was proposed in the Strong Start for Children Act? (Editor’s note: The Strong Start for Children Act, introduced in both houses of Congress in November, would create a federal grant program for states hoping to create or expand publicly funded preschool programs.)
Doggett: I think this will be a combination of the preschool development grants (for states with minimal preschool infrastructure) and maybe a first step, a down payment, on the preschool for all (grants to expand large, existing state-funded preschool programs) so that we really will see more than just systems development.
You know, we haven’t talked a lot about the Race to the Top (Early Learning Challenge grants) that are currently in place, but we have $1 billion in 20 states out there building their early childhood system. I’ve been looking very carefully at those states and what they’re doing. It’s pretty exciting.
EdSource: Yes, we in California have some of that money. Can you tell me a little of what you’re seeing in California?
Doggett: California has a really good plan. I was concerned it was going to be a little disjointed, but I’ve been reassured, in looking at it more carefully, that it is going to bring the state together. You all are working really hard, as all states are, on a tiered quality improvement rating system. I’m glad to see that. I think that is a way to bring the system together and ensure that parents know what they’re getting.
EdSource: We’re waiting to see what happens with the Strong Start for Children Act in Congress. In the meantime, if states want to try to be prepared to be eligible for that money, what are some suggestions you would give them?
Doggett: I tell state and local leaders, “Don’t wait for the federal government to act.” We need the federal government to act, but we need states to do more and we need communities to do more. This is not going to happen because the Strong Start act passes; it’s going to happen because this pushes up from the grassroots and parents demand and grandparents demand and teachers and school systems demand that we do more for early learning.
I think the best thing states can do is continue doing what they’re doing, which is build those systems and do what’s best for kids and, you know, continue to work with us to make sure we get some federal money to help support that.