Plan to revamp preschools hits Congress, but price tag is big

Legislation introduced Wednesday would help states expand high-quality preschool options to 4-year-olds in low- and middle-income families. President Obama’s State of the Union address in February laid out a vision for early education.

Jason Reed
President Barack Obama plays a game with children in a pre-kindergarten classroom at College Heights early childhood learning center in Decatur, Georgia February 14.

A bill introduced Wednesday in both the House and Senate – with at least some bipartisan backing on the House side – would help realize the vision for early-childhood education that President Obama laid out in his State of the Union address in February.

The bill largely follows the proposal outlined by the Obama administration earlier this year, helping states expand high-quality preschool options to 4-year-olds in low- and middle-income families.

It comes with a rather steep price tag – about $30 billion over the first five years – and no clear way to pay for it, which makes passage, at least in the current congressional climate, unlikely. Republicans in Congress were skeptical of Mr. Obama’s initial proposal in February, seeing it as a major new expense, and they're not likely to be more welcoming now. But early-childhood education advocates are hailing the plan as a necessary and smart investment, and they say that just getting such a proposal out there is a step in the right direction.

“This is really focused on the federal-state partnerships and building on the kinds of things states are already doing, helping them to increase access to low- and moderate-income 4-year-olds first, and eventually 3-year-olds, and helping to beef up quality,” says Laura Bornfreund, a senior policy analyst for early education at the New America Foundation in Washington. “Those are the big focal points, and those are the important places to go.”

The bill, introduced by Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa in the Senate and by Reps. George Miller (D) of California and Richard Hanna (R) of New York in the House, primarily focuses on increasing access to full-day preschool programs through formula funds distributed to states.

States that meet certain criteria – including having early-learning standards and linking preschool data to K-12 – could apply for the funds (about $27 billion over five years), which would be distributed based on the number of families earning below 200 percent of the federal poverty level.

States could use the funds to expand access to full-day programs meeting certain criteria, including small class sizes, qualified teachers, competitive salaries, rigorous health and safety standards, evidence-based instruction, and evidence-based comprehensive services for children.

Another $750 million would be set aside for states that don’t meet the standards for those funds, to help them improve their programs. And a smaller amount of money would go toward things like supporting child-care training and improvements in the Child Care and Development Block Grant, as well as encouraging support for the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program.

Early-childhood education has gotten a lot of attention from high-profile sources this year, starting with the president’s State of the Union address and his budget, in which he requested $75 billion over 10 years for a plan very similar to the one introduced in Congress Wednesday. And US Education Secretary Arne Duncan has emphasized the importance of good preschool all year, recently suggesting in a call with reporters on the latest national reading and math scores that the most important step in closing the achievement gap is to expand access to high-quality early-childhood programs for disadvantaged children.

Advocates of expanding access to pre-K programs point to the large “readiness” gap when kids enter kindergarten, with children who haven’t had access to good early education starting months or years behind those who have had such access.

They also say money invested in early education pays big dividends down the road.

"The early learning bill introduced today reflects a growing, bipartisan understanding that to ensure our nation’s children have the educational and economic opportunities they deserve, we must act early. It’s long been clear that high-quality early learning opportunities produce lasting benefits, including higher high school graduation rates and lower incarceration rates,” Secretary Duncan said in a statement Wednesday. “This is the most important single step we can take for the future of our young people.”

One possible flaw in the bill unveiled Wednesday is that – unlike Obama’s proposal earlier in the year – it doesn’t address the number of states that only offer half-day kindergarten programs, says Ms. Bornfreund of New America.

“The focus on pre-K is definitely important, and a good step in the right direction, but we also need to make sure children are transitioning into high-quality kindergarten programs,” she says. “This sets up the potential for kids going [from full-day preschool] into half-day kindergarten programs, which doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.”

Still, she and other early-childhood experts were largely complimentary of the bill, particularly for its emphasis on quality. Research shows, they note, that just getting kids into preschool isn’t enough to make any real difference: It has to involve high-quality programs with good teachers who understand how young children learn.

James Heckman, a Nobel laureate economist at the University of Chicago, where he pioneered some of the well-known research on the cost benefits of preschool, lauded the bill in a statement, noting that intervening in early childhood can reduce social spending and help with achievement gaps, health outcomes, workforce development, and productivity.

“As Congress considers this bill, policymakers can promote its success by staying true to a few essential principles: focus on disadvantaged families, start at birth, integrate health, develop cognitive and character skills, and encourage local innovation in quality programs from birth to age five,” Professor Heckman said.

Expanded access to preschool tends to be popular with a wide swath of voters – perhaps one reason it’s getting emphasized this year. But expect skepticism, at best, from congressional Republicans, who are likely to see this as simply a major new expenditure at a time when they’re critical of big federal spending programs.

“We can all agree on the importance of ensuring children have the foundation necessary to succeed in school and in life,” said Rep. John Kline (R) of Minnesota, chair of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, in a statement. “However, before investing in new federal early childhood initiatives, we should first examine opportunities to improve existing programs designed to help our nation’s most vulnerable children.”

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