Speaking Thursday at a conference in Burbank, U.S. Department of Education Asst. Secretary Thelma Melendez de Santa Ana said access to quality public education is the most pressing civil rights issue for the nation's school-age children.
"The president, the secretary of education, Duncan, and his team, believe that an excellent education system is the surest way to the nation's prosperity," Melendez said. "We also believe that education is the great equalization, the one true path out of poverty for disadvantaged children."
President Obama has laid out an ambitious education agenda, Melendez said, with the goal of boosting the United States to the worldwide No. 1 ranking for college graduation by 2020. The United States is currently ranked number nine.
A critical component of that goal, Melendez said, is improving early education, including free and subsidized childcare and pre-kindergarten programs. And the public education system should serve students from "cradle to career," she said.
Melendez was frequently interrupted by applause from hundreds of teachers, staff and administrators who had gathered for the "Ready for School, Ready for Life" conference.
Early education programs are woefully underfunded, said Jaimi Nanko, program officer at First 5 L.A., which hosted the conference. Families are in desperate need of all-day preschool, she said, as well as additional support services.
"Some can only afford half-day or part-time," Nanko said. "The other part that is also missing is the support services. It is not about solely education, but it is about at home, how are we supporting them?"
The benefits of early education are numerous, Melendez said. Children who attended pre-kindergarten programs are more likely to graduate from high school and college, and go on to successful careers.
"Research consistently shows that part in high-quality preschool programs leads to both short and long term positive outcomes for children, including improved high school graduation and college attendance and completion rates," Melendez said.
She recounted her own experience as an immigrant and first-grade student. She was well behind in reading, Melendez said, and her teacher and principal were unresponsive to her parents' pleas for assistance.
So her parents put her in a different school, and by second grade she was at the top of her class in reading.
She went on to a career as a school administrator, serving most recently as the superintendent of the Pomona School before being tapped in 2009 by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to join his team.
Melendez congratulated the educators for pushing ahead with several innovative programs, including the state's School Readiness Initiative, and the recently adopted early learning standards.
But she also acknowledged the difficulties facing schools in California given the ongoing state fiscal crisis.
"I know we still have a long way to go," Melendez said.