Advocates Cheer White House Spending on Early-Ed.

By Christina A. Samuels — December 22, 2014 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 5 min read
President Barack Obama hugs Alajah Lane, 9, of Washington, after she introduced him at the Dec. 10 White House summit on early-childhood education.

Corrected: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the amount of new federal money announced at the recent White House summit on early education.

The White House closed out 2014 by turning its powerful spotlight on the cause of early learning, announcing the results of two federal grant programs and unveiling a new philanthropic effort aimed at infants, toddlers, and young children.

The overall investment—some $750 million in new federal early-education money filtering out to the states—is still far short of the $75 billion, 10-year investment in preschool that President Barack Obama has been urging lawmakers to adopt. And the new, Republican-controlled 114th Congress may be just as unlikely to follow that call as the Congress that just ended.

But the grants and commitments rolled out at the Dec. 10 White House summit on early education got a warm welcome from advocates. “By launching this all in one day, getting that energy going, it gives us a second wind to gather ourselves and go through one more year fighting for that one big investment,” said Kris Perry, the executive director of the First Five Years Fund, which is an establishing partner of the Invest in US advocacy campaign.

Multiple Programs

At the December White House event, which featured the president, Vice President Joe Biden, and top administration officials, the U.S. Department of Education awarded more than $200 million to 18 states to help them develop or expand currently existing preschool programs for 4-year-olds. (Subsequently, the budget bill approved in the lame-duck session of Congress set aside an additional $250 million for a second round of this funding, called Preschool Development Grants.)

In addition, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced 234 “preliminary grantees” in its first Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership grant program. The grantees are preliminary until HHS completes its negotiations. More recipients are expected to be announced through March, for a total of $500 million for this program, which connects Early Head Start providers with private child-care centers or child-care homes that serve infants and toddlers from low-income families.

Finally, the event featured the debut of Invest in US, a coalition of public and private entities that have committed more than $340 million in money, resources, or in-kind donations to programs that serve young children.

The efforts are “just the beginning,” said President Obama at the event. “I’m calling on all Americans across our country to make their own commitments to our children. And I’m asking our members of Congress for their commitment as well. Outside Washington, giving our children a fair shot from the earliest age is a priority that crosses party lines.”

The Preschool Development Grants were a part of a budget bill approved in January 2014. The administration made it clear that the program would be distinct from the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grants, which support states in broader early-childhood initiatives. In contrast, the preschool grants are more narrowly focused on programs for 4-year-olds.

The money was divided into two portions: one for states that already have fairly robust early-childhood programs, and for programs just getting off the ground. Thirty-six states applied.

One of the grant recipients was Montana, which was awarded $10 million and is currently is among the eight states that have no state-funded preschool program. Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, has proposed a universal preschool program for 4-year-olds that, if approved, would cost $37 million over the state’s upcoming 2-year budget and start in the 2015-16 school year.

The federal money will be used to serve 16 high-needs communities in the state, according to Montana’s grant application.

“This grant is going to allow us to jump-start the effort to expand access to high-quality early-learning programs for Montana children and families,” said state Superintendent of Instruction Denise Juneau, in a statement.

The Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership grant program is an effort aimed at raising the quality of child-care programs available to low-income families. Early Head Start providers were encouraged through the grant program—though not required—to partner with day-care providers. As a part of the partnership, those private providers will be required to follow Head Start regulations, which are often more stringent than state regulations on issues such as staff training or teacher-child ratios.

“This is very ambitious and it’s going to take a lot of work,” said Diana Rauner, the president of the Chicago-based Ounce of Prevention Fund. The fund worked with other organizations in the Educare Learning Network to help them write grant applications for the Head Start funds. Eleven Educare organizations were awarded $29 million and are working with child-care centers and home-based day cares.

The funding opportunity has given states the impetus to make their own child-care standards more stringent, Ms. Rauner said. This is important work, she said, because a child’s early development is so important. “We are putting the energy into improving the interactions and the things that really matter in their environment,” she said.

Of the 234 grantees currently in negotiations with HHS, 74 percent proposed partnership arrangements. Twenty percent of the grantees proposed a mix of expanding their current programs and forming partnerships with private providers, and 6 percent applied only for funds to expand the programs they currently operate.

Private Sector’s Role

The Invest in US effort marks the culmination of a promise that the president made in his 2014 State of the Union Address. He said in that address that “as Congress decides what it’s going to do, I’m going to pull together a coalition of elected officials, business leaders, and philanthropists willing to help more kids access the high-quality pre-K they need.”

Among the partners in the coalition are a group of businesses, foundations and child welfare agencies in the greater Cleveland, Ohio area that plan to commit $10 million for children in their region. The Bezos Family Foundation, operated by the parents of Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, committed $5 million over two years to, in part, help disseminate research-based tools that promote children’s brain development.

A version of this article appeared in the January 07, 2015 edition of Education Week as Advocates Cheer White House Spotlight on Early-Ed.


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