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Published in Print: May 29, 2002, as Senators Float Grant Program To Boost Early Learning

Senators Float Grant Program To Boost Early Learning

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Senate education leaders rolled out legislation last week that would provide a new, $1 billion grant program to improve early-learning efforts nationwide.

The bipartisan announcement came nearly two months after President Bush outlined a series of steps—some requiring legislation, some not—to improve early-childhood education.

"Our goal is for every child in America to start school ready to learn," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said at a May 23 press conference held to unveil the proposal. "This bill helps to close the gap between what we know our children need and what we do to help them."

With Mr. Kennedy, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and the panel's top Republican, Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, as two of its champions, it appears the new bill may have traction in the chamber. The proposal may face tough sledding, however, in the House.

A central thrust of the Kennedy-Gregg proposal is to encourage states to devise unified systems of early care and education.

"This bill will essentially try to get some coordination into what is a fairly significant effort that has already been ongoing," Sen. Gregg said.

The measure, which as of last week had four Democratic and five Republican co-sponsors, isn't the only legislative effort under way on the early-childhood years. In particular, issues of child care and early learning are already figuring prominently in efforts to renew the 1996 federal welfare law. ("Child-Care Funding Becomes Hot Issue in Welfare Debates," May 29, 2000.)

The plan introduced in the Senate last week would create a new program. Mr. Gregg suggested that the bill "goes hand in hand" with the package of early-childhood proposals the president announced last month.

Mr. Bush's plan calls for training all Head Start teachers in early-literacy instructional techniques, and for the establishment of accountability measures designed to ensure that Head Start centers meet learning standards set under federal law in 1998. The president also proposed a $45 million research effort over five years to identify effective early-literacy programs and teaching strategies.

In addition, Mr. Bush called for all states that receive federal aid under child- care and welfare programs to set criteria on early education. ("Bush Outlines Plan to Boost Pre-K Efforts," April 10, 2002.)

Perhaps the starkest contrast between the two plans is money. Mr. Bush proposed little new federal aid to carry out his plans, which prompted a flurry of criticism from Democrats and some child-advocacy groups. But last week, it wasn't just Democrats who suggested more money was needed.

"As a fiscal conservative, I believe that one of the best investments the federal government could make is in [early- childhood education]," said Sen. George V. Voinovich, R-Ohio, who helped craft the new legislation.

The bill, called the Early Care and Education Act, would help promote school readiness by focusing on the social, emotional, physical, and cognitive-development needs of children from birth to age five, according to a summary provided by Sen. Kennedy. It also seeks to make certain that those who care for young children have the best information and training available, and that they are adequately paid.

Muddying the Waters?

The program, which would be jointly administered by the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services, would issue grants based on population and poverty. The money could be used for an array of purposes, such as professional development and training for child-care workers, wage-incentive programs, evaluation of the effectiveness of existing programs, and public-awareness campaigns.

Mr. Kennedy said last week that his committee could take action on the bill as early as June, possibly attaching it to legislation reauthorizing other child-care funds.

Helen Blank, the director of the child-care and child-development division of the Children's Defense Fund, a Washington-based advocacy group, said she worries the plan will divert attention from the effort to increase funding for the $4.8 billion Child Care and Development Block Grant, a focus of the discussions over the welfare law.

"This is our best chance in five years" to get a big increase for that program, she said.

While the proposed Early Care and Education Act may attract attention, it remains far from certain that it will actually become law, even with its high-profile bipartisan backing.

"The Kennedy proposal is likely to get a cold reception in the House," predicted a House GOP aide, who asked not to be named. "It's much different from what President Bush proposed. [Republican] members in the House believe strengthening existing programs like Head Start and the Child Care and Development Block Grant is the best way to ensure that children start school ready to learn."

The aide noted that the welfare-reauthorization bill just passed in the House contains some of the changes Mr. Bush has sought to promote a stronger focus on learning in child- care settings.

"Creating a new program," the aide said, "isn't in the vocabulary."

Assistant Editor Linda Jacobson contributed to this report.

Vol. 21, Issue 38, Pages 22,24

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