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Senate Education Panel OKs Preschool Expansion on Partisan Vote

By Alyson Klein — May 14, 2014 4 min read
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In an unsurprisingly partisan vote, the Senate education committee gave its stamp of approval to legislation that would make President Barack Obama’s vision for expanding preschool to more low- and moderate income 4-year-olds a reality.

Although the measure has strong backing from the administration—and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate panel that oversees K-12 spending and policy—its political prospects are iffy at best. The bill was approved on a 12-10 vote, with no GOP support.

Republicans on the committee made it clear that they were uniformly against the measure, in part because it would create a brand new federal program with a hefty pricetag—more than $30 billion over the first five years. The bill doesn’t include any sort of mechanism to cover that cost, and the administration’s proposal to pay for it—a new tax on tobacco products—went over like a lead balloon in Congress.

The bill has also been introduced in the House by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House education committee. It has a couple of GOP sponsors in that chamber—Rep. Richard Hanna of New York was the first Republican to sign on.

But House GOP leaders, including Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, have balked at the cost of the program. Instead, they are likely to consider a much more limited early-childhood education bill that has already passed the Senate by an overwhelming bipartisan margin: a reauthorization of the Child Care and Development Block Grant program, which last got a makeover way back in 1996.

Still, the Senate early-education expansion bill is worth watching, if only because of the political potency of early-childhood education. States all around the country are expanding in this area, and the congressional midterm elections are right around the corner. Plus, the issue—and even some version of the legislation—could become part of the debate in the presidential election. (Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton, who nearly won the Democratic nomination back in 2008, has been giving a series of speeches on early-childhood education.)

GOP lawmakers, meanwhile, have their own prescription for improving preschool programs—offering states way more flexibility over existing funds. In fact, Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., the top GOP lawmaker on the committee, introduced an alternative proposal that would allow states flexibility over nearly $20 billion in federal spending on early-education programs annually, by block-granting the programs. The funds would be targeted to children in poverty.

“The bill that’s being proposed today has a familiar ring to it,” Alexander said. “Our reluctance is pouring new money into a program that to us, looks like a national school board for three- and four-year-olds.”

And Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., whose state is a national leader in providing near universal preschool for 4-year olds, said that the bill’s “heart is in the right place” but that Congress simply doesn’t have the money to create the new program.

Harkin said he’d like to see the bill go to the floor this summer or fall, possibly just before the mid-term elections. “It could be a September bill,” he told me.

On other education legislation: He thinks that a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act could get done in a lame duck session, after the mid-terms. And he is planning to take a close look at a bipartisan research bill that recently passed the House. He will move on the issue, if the House moves on the bipartisan Senate legislation to renew CCDBG.

But Harkin argued that early-childhood education shouldn’t be a partisan issue. Every state “should do what Georgia did,” he said. “I wish Iowa would do that,” he said. “I’d like to see every state do it, but they haven’t done it.”

So what would Harkin’s bill actually do?

• Offer states that want to expand access to preschool programs matching grants. At first, the feds would pick up the lion’s share of the tab. During the initial two years of the program, states would have to match just 10 percent of the federal share. That would gradually increase to a 100 percent match by the eighth year of the program. And states that decide to serve half of all eligible 4-year-olds would be eligible for more money. States would not be required to participate in the program if they didn’t want to, they would opt in. The funds would be distributed to states based on their share of 4-year-olds from families that make roughly $47,000 a year or less.

• States would give grants to school districts (including charter districts), high quality early-education providers, or consortia of providers.

• States that want to go further could also extend the program to children ages birth through 3 from low- and moderate-income families. And states could reserve up to 15 percent of their funding to help serve children birth through 3 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 bachelors’ degree and demonstrated knowledge of early-childhood education.

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