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White House Gives Outline of Early-Childhood Ed. Expansion Plan

By Alyson Klein — February 14, 2013 3 min read
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President Barack Obama used his State of the Union speech to make a big splash on early-childhood education, calling for expanding access to preschool programs to just about every child in the country. But he gave almost no details on the plan in his Tuesday address, including how Congress would pay for it in a tight budget year.

While the financing mechanism still remains somewhat cloudy, the White House put forward additional details this morning about just how the effort would work. Much of the funding would appear to come from states, through a partnership arrangement with the federal government. But the administration also wants to beef up other services for very young children and babies, including home visits from social workers and nurses, although it doesn’t say just how much that expansion would cost.

Under the proposals:

•The administration would partner with states through a cost-sharing arrangement to extend federal funds to reach all low- and moderate-income families with 4-year-olds, meaning children from families that make at or below 200 percent of the poverty level. The U.S. Department of Education would be in charge of allocating the funds, and they would flow based on the number of children in the state who are eligible. The money would go to local school districts and other providers.

•States would get an incentive (unspecified whether that would mean extra resources or flexibility with other funds) for allowing additional middle-class children to join these state preschool programs.

•To get the money, programs would have to show that they are of high quality. That means having state-level standards for early learning, qualified teachers, and a plan for assessment systems. Other early-childhood programs across the state would also have to show high-quality standards.

•States would also be encouraged—presumably with new, or freed-up money—to offer full-day kindergarten, which now is available in just a few places.

What about Head Start, the nearly $8 billion program that helps low-income children get ready for school? Under the proposal, Head Start Centers—hundreds of which have recently been asked to recompete for their grants—would serve more children ages birth through 3, while 4-year-olds would be scooped up by the expanded state preschool programs.

The administration wants to bolster Early Head Start, allowing states and communities to compete for grants to provide full-day programs that help children make the transition to preschool. What’s more, the administration wants to grow an existing home-visiting initiative so that more families can take advantage of it.

Still, big questions remain. For one thing, the overall price tag was noticeably absent from the documents released by the administration. It was also unclear just how much individual pieces—such as the home-visiting expansion—would cost, how much the state responsibility would be, and what would happen in states that already have strong preschool programs for 4-year-olds, such as Oklahoma. Would the federal replace state money there?

And, of course, it’s hard to imagine how this will go down in Congress, where lawmakers are trying to figure out how to head off the biggest cuts to federal education programs in recent history, under the “sequester.”

UPDATE: Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, is eyeing the proposal with some skepticism, particularly on how the administration plans to pay for the plan.

Here’s his statement on the proposal:

We can all agree on the importance of ensuring children have the foundation they need to succeed in school and in life. However, before we spend more taxpayer dollars on new programs, we must first review what is and is not working in existing initiatives, such as Head Start. House and Senate Republicans have raised questions about the way the Department of Health and Human Services is managing the Head Start program in an effort to determine whether the program is effectively serving students, families, and taxpayers. Unfortunately, too many questions remain unanswered. I look forward to receiving substantive details about the president's early childhood education proposal and hope the administration will shed more light on how they plan to ensure this new initiative will benefit children while also remaining accountable to taxpayers.

Obama is set to talk more about early childhood today at a stop in Georgia, a state that already has a robust investment in prekindergarten.

Advocates: Is early-childhood investment the right move? Is this the right way to go about it? Can this proposal, or at least some parts of it, make it through Congress/ I’ll be following this, as will my colleague Christina Samuels of Early Years fame. Let us know what you think.