Clinton's 'Early-Learning Fund' Quietly Becomes Reality

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A little known "early-learning fund"—something that President Clinton proposed three years ago to help local child-care and early-childhood-education providers improve their services—is finally going to make it into the hands of those who need it.

Part of the Clinton administration's broad child-care package, the early- learning fund is modeled after North Carolina's successful Smart Start initiative. In that state, a combination of state and local money is used to help raise the quality of child care, health care, and other programs for children from birth through age 5.

Passed as part of the fiscal 2001 federal budget, which was approved by Congress last month, the new $20 million Early Learning Opportunities Act will be administered by the Department of Health and Human Services.

It will be used by local communities for "developing, operating, or enhancing voluntary early-learning programs that are likely to produce sustained gains in early learning," according to a summary of the legislation.

Local councils—to be made up of local government officials, parents, and other community leaders—can apply for the money this spring.

"It's a start," Helen Blank, the director of the child-care and - development division of the Washington-based Children's Defense Fund, said of the initiative. "Hopefully, Congress will continue this commitment."

Grant recipients will be able to use the money for a variety of activities, including parenting programs, literacy promotion, and improved access to early-childhood programs for children with special needs.

Programs can also use the funds to expand the days or hours they operate, to enroll more children, or to make their services more affordable for low-income families.

Strings Attached

But strings will be attached. Programs that receive the federal aid will be required to collaborate with their local school districts to help prepare preschool children to do well in elementary school.

Organizations that receive grants also must make their services available to children in their communities who are cared for in their homes, as well as those in child- care centers.

The local councils will be required to set goals for the use of the money and make reports on their progress to HHS.

No State Role

The early-childhood legislation says that if annual funding for the program ever tops $150 million, the money will be given to states before it is doled out to local programs.

But until then, there is no direct link to what states are doing. And that concerns Karen Ponder, the executive director of the North Carolina Partnership for Children, the state agency that runs Smart Start. "It's a little worrisome if it's not tied in to what the state is doing as a whole," she said.

Ms. Ponder points out that through a focused state effort like Smart Start, she and other early-childhood advocates in the state have learned that focusing on improving the quality of the staff is one of the keys to a successful program.

"You've got to have a system to train teachers and pay them a wage that keeps them in the classroom," Ms. Ponder said.

The federal appropriations bill also included a variety of other provisions affecting child-care and education programs for young children:

  • The Child Care and Development Fund, the primary source of child-care assistance for low- income families, received an additional $817 million, bringing the total to $2 billion.
  • Of the new funds, more than $172 million will go for efforts to improve quality, $19.12 million will support resource and referral agencies and child-care programs for school-age children, and $10 million will finance child- care research.
  • $10 million has been approved for new training programs for early-childhood educators in high-poverty areas. Run by the Department of Education, the training will focus on strategies to help young children build language and literacy skills.
  • For the first time, Congress has provided $1 million to the Education Department for a financial-aid loan-forgiveness program for child-care providers. This helps pay for education and training for child-care providers.

Vol. 20, Issue 19, Page 22

Published in Print: January 24, 2001, as Clinton's 'Early-Learning Fund' Quietly Becomes Reality
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