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A year ago, President Barack Obama’s budget pledge to make early-childhood education one of his top priorities created enormous excitement among advocates who had long pushed for greater federal investment.
The president had spoken eloquently on the benefits of high-quality preschool and of preparing all children for success before they enter kindergarten. States planned long-delayed improvements in the quality of early-childhood education, hoping for a windfall in new federal funding.
The excitement has cooled a bit. President Obama’s historic remaking of the country’s health-care system and the related measure overhauling student loans last month ultimately failed to include money for his proposed Early Learning Challenge Fund, which would have provided competitive grants to help states both create and improve the quality of services for at-risk children from birth to age 5.
“It was my understanding that early education was to be a priority, and the loss of investments that could have been made with the [Early Learning Challenge Fund] hurt children and families the most,’’ said Holly Robinson, the commissioner of Bright from the Start with the Georgia Department of Early Care.
Though disappointed, advocates are quickly regrouping in the hope of influencing the federal government’s “blueprint” for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, currently known as the No Child Left Behind Act. They are also working to ensure that the president’s proposed fiscal 2011 budget increases for child-care and school-readiness programs, such as Head Start, survive.
“The challenge grant was a loss,” said Adele Robinson, a deputy executive director at the National Association for the Education of Young Children, in Washington. She saw such grants as essential for helping states create early-learning standards.
“It came down to a very tight budget,” she said. “But I don’t think [the Obama administration] is less committed.”
State, Federal Commitment
Hope for new federal investment follows a doubling of state spending on preschool to $4.6 billion annually between 2006 and 2008 and as social scientists, economists and politicians have touted the benefits of early-childhood education.
Mr. Obama’s initial pledge of $10 billion for early-childhood education annually would have amounted to the greatest federal commitment since the Head Start program began in 1965. While 38 states have prekindergarten programs, they receive no federal money for those programs, and their quality varies widely.
The recession and record budget deficits have already led some state legislatures to cut prekindergarten spending, so the loss of potential federal grants will be acutely felt.
In California, which has more than 90,000 children in state-funded preschools, plans were already under way to use federal grants to develop better assessments and improve data collection from early-childhood providers. Wisconsin planned a quality rating and improvement system. And John Bancroft, the director of the Head Start program in Washington state’s Puget Sound area, had hoped the Early Learning Challenge Fund would help integrate Head Start with state preschool and child-care programs, to better meet the needs of families.
“I worry about what other opportunities [for funding] there will be in this economy,” said Cornelia Grumman, the executive director of the First Five Years Fund, a Chicago-based advocacy group whose goal is to expand high-quality early learning to children from birth to age 5. Ms. Grumman is among the early-childhood professionals who are also concerned about the minimal attention given to early learning in President Obama’s blueprint for the ESEA.
Jacqueline Jones, a senior adviser to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for early learning, said the president’s commitment in that area has not wavered. “We are exploring strategies to support young children and their families,” Ms. Jones said in a statement.
The economic-stimulus bill enacted by Congress in early 2009 included more than $4 billion for Head Start and Early Head Start, and President Obama has proposed an almost $1 billion increase in funding for those programs in his fiscal 2011 budget. He has also proposed another $1.6 billion for the Child Care and Development Block Grant program, which provides child-care subsidies for low-income families as well as money for program-quality improvements. If approved, the spending would constitute the largest increase in federal funding for such block grants in more than 20 years.
Nonetheless, 13 groups—ranging from the Foundation for Child Development, in New York City, to Washington-based Pre-K Now, an advocacy group that is part of the Pew Charitable Trusts—want funding for states or districts that promote improvements in early education to be a more prominent part of the ESEA reauthorization. Their March 29 letter to the House Education and Labor Committee proposed rewriting the law to include prekindergarten children and teachers, along with ideas for expanding data collection in the early years of school, and rewarding states for building strong early-childhood systems.
“The reauthorization of ESEA provides a unique opportunity to transform American education into a system that lays firm foundations during these early years and builds upon those foundations with high-quality learning opportunities each year thereafter,” the letter said.
After struggling for years to scrape together various sources of money both to improve the settings in which children learn and give more children a chance to attend preschool, early-learning advocates remain heartened by the attention President Obama has given to the lack of a coherent early-childhood system in the United States.
The president’s blueprint for the ESEA reauthorization does mention requiring states to develop “pre-K to 12 literacy plans.” It also suggests that applicants for grants under a proposed expansion of the $650 million Investing in Innovation Fund—begun under the economic-stimulus program enacted last year—could be given preference for proposals that would improve early-learning options, among other high-priority needs.
Some states are already stepping up efforts to develop quality rating systems for child-care centers and preschools and to offer incentives for improvement in the hope that the Early Learning Challenge Fund would be revived.
“We’re not giving up,” said Helen Blank, the director of leadership and public policy at the National Women’s Law Center, in Washington. “Too much has been invested in the concept.”
Gerrit Westervelt, the executive director of the Build Initiative, a nonprofit organization in Denver, called the proposed grants “the strongest statement yet about the importance of high quality. This was a quality requirement with a dedicated no-tax-increase funding source. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
The administration may still find money for the Early Learning Challenge Fund, said W. Steven Barnett, a co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, based in New Brunswick, N.J. But he said questions must be directed at Congress and its commitment to funding an early-childhood-education agenda at a time when states are cutting back.
“I’m concerned that we don’t have a solution, long term, to the fundamental problem of how will we will support not just early learning but children’s programs generally,” said Mr. Barnett, who has urged the Obama administration to tie any increase in Head Start and child-care programs to incentives for higher standards and better performance.
Not everyone believes a greater federal investment in early childhood is warranted. Lindsey Burke, a policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a think tank in Washington, said policymakers should ask whether one is needed.
“More than 80 percent of 4-year-old children are already enrolled in some form of a preschool program, making more federal spending on preschool a subsidy for middle- and upper-income parents who are already paying for child care on their own,” Ms. Burke said.
In California, meanwhile, the prospect of the federal challenge fund led to “some picking up of the pace,” even while it was still under consideration, said Catherine Atkin, the director of Preschool California, an advocacy group. “We loved having that wind in our sails.”
Added Ms. Robinson, of the National Association for the Education of Young Children: “The fund created a lot of energy, a lot of conversation. I don’t think all that work was for naught.”