Bipartisan Pre-K Bill Faces Uphill Climb

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Top education lawmakers in Congress are trying to make President Barack Obama's vision for universal prekindergarten a reality. But despite bipartisan backing, the legislation is expected to face an uphill climb in an era of budget austerity.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa and Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman and ranking member of the Senate and House education committees, respectively, as well as one Republican, Rep. Richard Hanna of New York, put forth a broad bill last month that would help interested states expand their prekindergarten offerings using federal dollars.

But the bill's authors haven't explained how they plan to cover the cost of more than $30 billion over the next five years. The Obama administration had suggested boosting the federal cigarette tax to pay for its similar preschool proposal, which would cost $75 billion over ten years. But that idea went over like a lead balloon on Capitol Hill and isn't part of the Miller-Harkin-Hanna proposal.

The program's price tag is not insignificant, given that existing early-childhood-education programs are cutting back at least in the short-term, more than they have in years, in part because of federal reductions, said Lisa Guernsey, the director of the early-childhood initiative at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank. The programs have been hit particularly hard by the 5 percent federal cut known as sequestration, which resulted in 57,000 fewer Head Start slots.

Aiding the Youngest Learners

A new proposal in Congress would ramp up federal prekindergarten aid for 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families:

  • States would be eligible to apply for formula funds that would be distributed based on their proportion of 4-year-olds whose families make roughly $47,000 a year or less.
  • States would have to contribute 10 percent of their own money to match the federal funds for two years. That would gradually increase to a 100 percent match by the eighth year. States could give the grants to school districts (including charter districts), high-quality early-education providers, or consortia of providers. More money would be made available to states that provide preschool to half—or more—of eligible 4-year-olds.
  • States could extend the program to children ages birth through 3 who come from low- and moderate-income families, reserving up to 15 percent of their funding to help those whose families meet the income requirements.
  • Prekindergarten programs funded under the bill would have to meet certain quality standards. For instance, they’d have to be full-day, and teachers would have to have a bachelor’s degree and demonstrated knowledge of early-childhood education.

"We're in whiplash between the excitement around the idea that the leader of the free world is interested in investing in early learning, [while] experiencing some of the biggest cuts in the early-childhood community" in recent years, Ms. Guernsey said. "It's really hard to be 100 percent optimistic about where we are."

Federal Assistance

Under the proposed legislation, states that wanted to offer prekindergarten to 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families would get a major assist from the federal government, at least initially. They would be eligible to apply for formula funds that would be distributed to states based on their proportion of such children, whose families make roughly $47,000 a year or less.

The federal government would pick up 90 percent of the tab for the cost of a state's program in the first two years. Then, the state share would gradually increase to a 100 percent match for the federal aid.

The Senate education committee, which is controlled by Democrats, could take up the legislation early next year. But the path in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives is less clear. Right after its introduction, Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, issued a statement balking at the cost, but adding that he'd like to hold a hearing on early-childhood education.

Still, Rep. Hanna was optimistic at an event held last month to unveil the legislation. "I may be the first Republican" to endorse this legislation, "but I won't be the last," he said.

Reps. Hanna and Miller also urged budget negotiators to consider preschool as they work out a long-term spending agreement, slated to be unveiled this month. Rep. Hanna called support for early childhood a "priority" even in tight budget times.

So far, Republican governors have been reluctant to throw their arms around the Obama proposal, which was outlined in the administration's fiscal 2014 budget request and served as the basis for the congressional legislation.

Reg Griffin, a spokesman for Bright From the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning, said the Peach State—a national leader in early-childhood education—wants to learn more, particularly when it comes to how Congress plans to cover the cost and what strings would be attached under the legislation.

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"Ultimately, we would like to see the federal government provide maximum flexibility to the states on implementation of these programs," Mr. Griffin said.

Under the Obama plan, states could expand the program to cover the cost of full-day kindergarten. The House and Senate bills instead open the door to pumping more money to children from disadvantaged backgrounds, from birth to age 3. The Harkin-Miller-Hanna legislation would also allow states to reserve up to 15 percent of their funding to help serve children birth through 3 whose families met the income requirements.

But the change opens a potential area of concern, said Laura Bornfreund, a senior policy analyst at the New America Foundation's early-childhood initiative, who overall found much to like in the congressional proposal.

Because not all districts offer full-day kindergarten, a possible drawback under the plan, she said, is that children could move from a full-day, high-quality preschool to a half-day kindergarten program.

Vol. 33, Issue 13, Pages 24-25

Published in Print: December 4, 2013, as Bipartisan Early-Education Bill Faces Uphill Climb in Congress
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