One of the first things to strike a visitor at Chicago's Educare center is the calm.
In every room, kids – ranging in age from birth to 5 years old – are happily interacting with their teachers and with one another.
It's clear the kids here are learning. And it's an environment, say education experts, that is too often absent from the sort of child-care and preschool programs that serve at-risk populations.
It's also a model that some hope will become more prevalent if the Obama administration's Early Learning Challenge Fund becomes law. The House has already approved the fund as part of a larger bill, which is now awaiting action in the Senate.
The $8 billion fund ($10 billion in the Senate version) represents the biggest federal investment in education in more than a decade.
"This is the 'race to the top fund' for early education," says Cornelia Grumman, executive director of the First Five Years Fund, an advocacy group in Chicago, referring to the challenge grants that the Obama administration has been giving to spur K-12 education reform.
The proposed fund offers about $1 billion a year total in challenge grants to states to help them improve the quality and governance of early-childhood education programs for at-risk children. In comparison, the annual budget for Head Start, the largest federal foray into the preschool years, is about $7 billion a year.
The new fund would be paid for through savings generated from another part of the legislation – an overhaul of the administration of college loans.
Although various education issues have spawned controversy, there is already substantial consensus among education and childhood-development experts about certain aspects of early-childhood education. Many agree that those early years are crucial to students' eventual educational trajectory. They also say that certain elements – such as high-quality staff and low teacher-child ratios – are needed for a successful program.
But not everyone agrees with the Obama administration's approach. Adding $1 billion a year to early-education spending would be a lot of money – and doesn't make sense given the track record of current programs, says Dan Lips, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. He counts 69 existing federal programs for preschool and child care that total about $25 billion a year. "It would be misguided to move forward with a new federal preschool program before reforming and improving the existing ones," he says.
Other early-learning advocates want a push toward universal pre-K programs, rather than those focused on just the neediest children. But most say that a targeted approach like the Obama administration's is a reasonable way to start.
At the state level, early-childhood education has seen something of a heyday in recent years, as many states have increased spending.
But the big investments haven't necessarily been done within a meaningful framework, says Sara Mead, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington. "You've got this mishmash and a lot of variation in quality, even among programs in the same state," she says.
These are the shortcomings that the Early Learning Challenge Fund hopes to address. To qualify for the grants, states would have to demonstrate that they're moving toward a more comprehensive system and are willing to invest in early learning and use public-private partnerships to do so.
In many ways, Educare, run by the Chicago advocacy group Ounce of Prevention Fund, is a model of how a high-quality program might look.
The 150 children who attend the center come from the most vulnerable populations. For the first three years, each class of eight children has three teachers, at least one of whom has a BA. That trio remains with the children all three years. Teachers interact on the floor with infants, and they help toddlers learn to self-regulate and express themselves.
The program is expensive, costing about $18,000 per child per year. The funding comes from existing local and federal sources.
Marquia Fields, whose 3-year-old son, Winter, and 19-month-old daughter, Summer, are at the center, says that the child care she used for Winter during his first year "was almost like a coat check." Now, though, "you feel like you almost have a replacement of you" in the teachers, she says.
The results for Educare so far have been strong, with children who attend centers in five cities showing much-improved school readiness, vocabulary, and social skills. "We're trying to demonstrate that it's possible to do this with the public funding stream and that it's an effective and efficient use of public dollars," says Diana Rauner, executive director of the Ounce of Prevention Fund.
No high-quality program will be cheap, Ms. Rauner and others say. But money put toward early-childhood development of disadvantaged children earns a return of 10 percent a year in savings down the road, according to James Heckman, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago. This means lower dropout rates, lower incarceration rates, and more-productive adults.
Statistics also connect early learning with benefits at younger ages – such as lower rates of special-education referrals, points out Robert Pianta, dean of the University of Virginia's education school in Charlottesville. "These programs pay for themselves before [the kids reach] high school," he says.