Education Opinion

Questions on Proposed Pre-K Legislation

By Sara Mead — November 13, 2013 5 min read
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In my previous posts I described the key features of the pre-k bill released today, as well as what I think is good and not so good about it. But I still have some questions:

  1. Do all state pre-k programs have to meet high-quality standards? Section 116(a)(1)(C) of the bill reads "[an assurance that the State] will establish or certify the existence of program standards for all State prekindergarten programs consistent with the definition of a high-quality pre-kindergarten program [included in this bill.” Does this mean that, if a state already has a pre-k program in place, it needs to ensure that all pre-k slots funded by its existing programs meet the quality standards in this bill as a condition for receiving funding? Including the full-day and teacher salary requirements? If so, its possible that simply bringing existing programs up to the standard would cost some states more than the amount of money they’d be eligible to receive through this program. This would likely be a particular obstacle to states like California, Colorado, and Ohio that have large existing programs with relatively low standards, or for a state like New York where most state-funded pre-k is in half-day programs. Alternatively, if states are allowed to maintain separate pre-k programs--one with lower existing standards and one with higher standards that receives federal funds, this could further contribute to fragmentation and misalignment in early childhood programs.
  2. How many states currently meet the requirements for the program? Considering both the elgibility requirements and the assurances that states are required to provide regarding program standards for all State prekindergarten programs, how many states are likely to meet the requirements for a federal pre-k grant? As Alyson Klein writes, neither the House or Senate committee staff she talked to, nor Secretary Duncan, seems to have an answer to this question--but it’s a critical one.
  3. How many states will even want to participate in this program? Meeting the quality standards in this bill is going to be costly for some states---particularly those with large, existing programs that have lower quality standards. Moreover, many governors and state legislatures may see the federal matching grants as a bad deal, because the increase in required state match over time puts states on the hook for future funding commitments they may not have the resources to meet. Not to mention that, as ACA has shown, some Republican governors are uninterested in taking advantage of federal programs that are signature Obama administration initiatives--even when they would have a real benefit to the state and its citizens. Given all that, how many states are likely to actually apply to participate in this program if it is enacted?
  4. What about teachers aides? The definition of high-quality pre-k in Sec. 112(9) includes detailed requirements for pre-k teachers, but makes no mention of teachers aides. Typically, pre-k programs meet the lower adult:child ratio standards required for quality pre-k by having at least two adults in a room: A lead teacher and a teacher’s aide, who often has a lower level of qualifications. Would the teacher requirements in Sec. 112(9) apply to all adults in an instructional role in pre-k classrooms? If so, that would dramatically increase costs.
  5. Will testing limitations conflict with state teacher evaluation commitments? Section 124 of the bill includes a specific prohibition on uses of assessments to provide rewards or sanctions of individual teachers or children. This language is not new. But it raises an important question for LEAs in states where ESEA waivers or RTT grants commit the state and its LEAs to implement systems of teacher evaluation based in part on student learning outcomes. Would these provisions preclude LEAs that have established educator evaluation systems based in part on measures of student learning from including pre-k teachers employed by the LEA in those systems? If so, might this policy also create a conflict with the requirements in 112 to pay pre-k teachers comparably with K-12 teachers?
  6. How will special education advocates respond to the perfomance metric on reducing special education placements? There is solid research showing the quality pre-k can help reduce special education placements and costs for children in elementary school, and that these reductions can over time lead to savings in public spending. That said, the bill’s proposed metric regarding reductions in special education placements may not be well-receiving by some special education advocates--a powerful lobby in D.C.--who might see this as creating an incentive for districts to deny special education diagnoses or services to children. The bill includes language making clear this is not the intent--but it will be interesting to see how relevant interests respond. This is particularly worth keeping an eye on because reductions in special education placements--and the ability to repurpose savings that result from them to pay for pre-k--is critical to both the case that pre-k generates returns on public investment and to efforts to use social impact bonds to expand pre-k investments.
  7. Is this going anywhere? Sure, the bill’s been introduced, but does it have any chance of actually getting passed, in a Congress that’s had a hard time getting anything done, and where a Republican House majority seems unlikely to move it forward?
  8. What about funding? Even if this bill were to pass, it’s an authorizing bill. To fund the proposal would require Congressional appropriations (as my colleagues at Politics K-12 noted yesterday, while the original Obama proposal would have funded the proposal through mandatory revenues generated by a new tobacco tax, this proposal would fund the program with discretionary funds subject to Congressional authorization). Given the current climate of fiscal austerity, funding any new program would be an incredible lift, and would likely require identifying major offsets from other education, health, or social service programs--which as yet no one’s talking about.

I’ll be keeping an eye on these and other questions in the coming weeks and months.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.