Congressional Talk Swirls Around Early-Education Proposals

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President Barack Obama's multibillion-dollar proposal to entice states to expand their prekindergarten offerings will serve as a focal point of a broader discussion on Capitol Hill about the right role for the federal government in early-childhood education—even though the initiative is unlikely to cross the legislative finish line this year.

But, in what may be a sort of consolation prize to early-childhood advocates, the long-stalled reauthorization of another program for the youngest children, the Child Care and Development Block Grant, may see fresh momentum, thanks in part to an invigorated focus on issues related to children's early years.

The roughly $5 billion program provides grants to help low-income parents cover the cost of child-care services, ranging from infant care all the way up to after-school care. It hasn't been updated since 1996. But over the summer, the Senate education committee gave swift approval to a bipartisan bill revamping the program to focus more on program quality, rather than just access.

That legislation seems to have a much better shot in a Congress consumed with trimming spending than the administration's plan to vastly expand the federal role in helping states spread high-quality early-childhood programs, said Clare McCann, a policy analyst for the New America Foundation's education policy program.

"I think that [the child-care block grant] has a lot more friends on Capitol Hill," she said, in part because lawmakers view it as a workforce-development program, not just an education initiative. "It's probably got a lot more potential for going somewhere in the immediate future."

But, Ms. McCann added, "there are limitations to [the block grant] program." For instance, she said, "it's designed to be child care, not preschool," and doesn't meet current demand, despite hefty funding.

The Obama administration's pricey preschool initiative, touted in back-to-back State of the Union speeches, would likely go a lot further in bolstering access. It would provide matching grants to states that want to offer prekindergarten to more 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families, and would authorize new resources for programs serving children from birth to age 3.

The plan would cost more than $30 billion in the first five years—and the administration's proposed way to pay for it, a new tobacco tax, hasn't gotten much political traction. Even James H. Shelton, the deputy U.S. secretary of education, told a group of New York school board members this month that he didn't expect Congress to enact the plan this year.

Patchwork of Programs

For their part, Republican leaders say Congress first needs to get a handle on the myriad of early-childhood-education programs across the federal government before creating a brand-new, multibillion-dollar program. There are 45 federal programs with some early-education focus, according to a report released this month by the Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm.

"Many federal early-care and -education programs are in need of serious review," Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee said at a hearing on early-childhood education held Feb. 5, the day the GAO report was issued. "This should be our first priority, not rubber-stamping a 46th federal program."

But there's a predictable partisan divide on the issue. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate education committee, said at a Feb. 6 Senate hearing on early-childhood education that he's already certain that the current system isn't sufficient. Sen. Harkin has sponsored a bill based largely on the Obama administration's proposal.

"The federal government supports a variety of programs to support early education and care," Sen. Harkin said at the hearing. "However, those investments fall well short of what's needed." He cited data from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services showing that only 1 in 6 eligible children gets federal child care assistance.

And he dismissed the idea that cost is a barrier. "If you want quality, you have to pay for it," Sen. Harkin said.

Sen. Harkin plans to continue the debate over his measure, which has been sponsored in the House by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif, the top Democrat on the education committee. Mr. Harkin will hold another hearing on the measure in April. And he wants the Senate education committee to consider the bill before Memorial Day.

But the process is likely to be partisan. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the top Republican on the education panel, likened the Harkin-Miller measure to other federal programs, such as Medicaid, that he said have ultimately created a burden at the state level.

"Here is what we should not do—that is, to fall back into the familiar Washington pattern of noble intentions, a grand promise, lots of federal mandates, and sending the bill to the states with disappointing results," Sen. Alexander said at the Senate hearing.

Child-Care Momentum

Moving forward on the child-care block grant bill could give Congress a chance to show that it cares about early learning—an issue that's beginning to garner broad bipartisan backing across states—without spending much new money.

In kicking off the House hearing, Chairman Kline signaled that he's ready to move on the program's reauthorization. The bipartisan Senate bill "includes several common-sense provisions that will help empower parents and improve coordination" between federal early-childhood-education programs, he said.

But Sen. Harkin made it clear in an interview that revamping the child-care program wouldn't be enough on its own to get the needed results on early-childhood education.

"The programs fill different needs," he said.

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The Senate legislation to renew the child-care block grants was introduced last spring and co-written by Sens. Barbara Mikulsi, D-Md., and Richard Burr, R-N.C. It would call for states to set aside a greater share of their federal funds to improve early-childhood programs that benefit from the grants and spend the money in a more deliberate way.

States also would be required to put in place basic safety measures, including background checks for program employees.

Passing the child-care bill would be a good step, said Helen Blank, the director of child care and early learning at the National Women's Law Center in Washington. But it's far from the only action that Congress needs to take, she added.

"I don't think you can check the [early-learning] box without significant new funding, whether it's for child care or prekindergarten," she said. "You have to have attach resources to reform."

Vol. 33, Issue 21, Page 22

Published in Print: February 19, 2014, as Talks Swirl in Congress Over Early-Ed. Proposals
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