Stimulus Providing Big Funding Boost for Early Childhood

Programs ramping up, with eye on expansion

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Advocates for early-childhood education are taking President Obama at his word that the billions of dollars for programs like Head Start included in the recent economic-stimulus package are merely a “down payment” on future expansion.

So, while other education officials are weighing the risks of starting new programs with federal money that may dry up in two years, early-childhood programs are ramping up for expansion after years of being underfunded, their supporters say.

“We have real hope. We don’t think that we will be cut off in two years,” said Adele Robinson, the associate executive director for policy and public affairs for the National Association for the Education of Young Children, based in Washington. “We are very hopeful that we have a good partner in the White House.”

During the presidential campaign, Mr. Obama promised to quadruple Early Head Start enrollment, increase Head Start funding, and improve quality for both. And he made another nod toward the importance of early-childhood programs in his Feb. 24 address to Congress.

“Already, we have made an historic investment in education through the economic-recovery plan,” the president said. “We have dramatically expanded early-childhood education and will continue to improve its quality, because we know that the most formative learning comes in those first years of life.”

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Early-Childhood Programs

The $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provides $1 billion over two years for Head Start, an education and social-services program for 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families that began in 1965. The 15-year-old Early Head Start program, which provides services to infants, toddlers, and pregnant women, will receive $1.1 billion over that period. Together, Head Start and Early Head Start received about $7 billion in fiscal 2008.

Federal child-care and child-development block grants, which are used in combination with state money to provide subsidies for families that need child care, will receive $2 billion in increased funding over two years. The program received about $2 billion in fiscal 2008.

Expansion Plans

Stimulus money for early-childhood programs is also contained in other funding streams. For instance, Part C and Section 619 of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act—programs that serve children with disabilities from infancy to kindergarten age—are receiving $900 million.

In addition, the $13 billion in Title I stimulus money, which can be used for schools that have large populations of children from low-income families, can be used to pay for early-childhood programs.

The 139,000-student Montgomery County, Md., district in suburban Washington plans to use part of its $6.1 million in Title I stimulus money to pay for an expansion of its full-day Head Start programs. The growth means the district will go from 13 programs serving 260 children to 21 programs serving 420 students this coming fall.

Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said the expansion reflected research done in the district that shows students who attended high-quality Head Start programs outpaced their peers academically.

“When the stimulus money came, this was a no-brainer,” Mr. Weast said. “You have to make your money targeted to get results.”

Concerns about the funding stream drying up “can’t ... deter you from doing the right things for children,” he said.

Early Head Start is receiving a dramatic increase from the stimulus legislation, compared with its $689 million in funding in fiscal 2008. The money is expected to double the number of children and families served by the program. Early Head Start works with pregnant women and helps promote the development of very young children, but is still just a fraction of the size of the older Head Start program. About 95,000 families and children are served by Early Head Start, compared with 976,000 in Head Start programs.

Only about 3 percent of eligible women are currently served through Early Head Start, said Matthew Melmed, the executive director of Zero to Three, a nonprofit organization that supports professionals, policymakers and parents on issues related to infants and toddlers. Although the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which administers Head Start and Early Head Start, has not released guidance on how the Early Head Start money can be spent, Mr. Melmed anticipates that the aid will allow for the expansion of programs, as well as the creation of new ones. But some of the money also will be spent on improving programs.

“If all this money ends up doing is filling a hole that existed before,” Mr. Melmed said, “it will not move us toward the types of changes we’re committed to seeing.”

Pre-K Competition?

One early-childhood constituency to watch will be prekindergarten programs, said Sara Mead, a senior research fellow with the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank. While the bulk of stimulus dollars in education will flow through individual states’ school finance formulas, prekindergarten programs are often funded through a different revenue source in state budgets.

That means prekindergarten programs could end up competing for resources along with other needs that are vying for governors’ attention, Ms. Mead said.

Kathy Patterson, the senior officer for government relations for the Washington-based advocacy group Pre-K Now, pointed to the program in Maryland’s Montgomery County as a creative way to keep some prekindergarten programs operating, and even expanding.

Her organization is assessing the health of prekindergarten programs in the economic recession, and has found that states have been trying to hang on to them.

“We’ve had an awful lot of state leaders who have said, ‘We’ve got to keep on expanding these programs,’” Ms. Patterson said.

Vol. 28, Issue 27, Page 8

Published in Print: April 1, 2009, as Stimulus Providing Big Funding Boost For Early Childhood
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