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Slim Chances for Early Ed. in NCLB Rewrite, Says Sen. Lamar Alexander

By Lauren Camera — March 24, 2015 3 min read
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Since Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., decided their first priority as chairman and ranking member of the Senate education committee would be to overhaul the No Child Left Behind law, Murray has been adamant that the rewrite include early-childhood education.

The two have been negotiating for weeks behind closed doors in hopes of brokering a bipartisan proposal, and very little detail—if any at all—has been shared about what’s making the cut and what’s not.

But Alexander made it pretty clear Tuesday morning that Murray, a former preschool teacher, won’t be getting her wish to see the federal K-12 law expanded to include early education, at least not without a big fight.

“Hooking early-childhood education to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is kind of like hooking a wagon to a bus,” Alexander told a room of state school superintendents during the Council of Chief State School Officers’ annual legislative conference. “It will be very difficult to get both of them moving at the same time.”

Alexander’s beef with the idea? The federal government already spends about $22 billion annually on various early-education programs, but the money is fragmented, stuck in unworkable silos, and often ineffective.

“In order to deal with early-childhood education, we’re going to have to deal with the fragmented $22 billion already being spent,” he said.

That’s not to say that Alexander, whose mother ran an education program for 3- to 5-year-olds in their converted garage for 25 years, doesn’t think early ed is an important legislative issue.

“I know it’s important,” he said. “The question is how do we do it, and is this the time to do it? Fixing No Child Left Behind is hard enough. My preference would be to deal with early childhood seriously, but deal with it in a separate area.”

If getting early-childhood education into the NCLB rewrite was simply a pet project of Murray’s, it’s likely that this is the last we’d hear about it. But including preschool provisions in the measure is also a top priority for the White House.

In fact, just yesterday, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, also speaking at the CCSSO conference, named including a focus on early childhood education in the NCLB rewrite as his No. 1 priority for the bill. And that means the debate over expanding the K-12 law to incorporate early ed will likely continue through to the conference period—should the process get that far.

It’s a bit of a paradox that, in a Republican-controlled Congress, the administration would prioritize expanding the federal role further in pre-K. After all, the bill is likely to be largely about rolling back the government’s reach in education.

After Duncan’s comments yesterday, some in the education policy world were quick to wonder whether the administration is asking for such a heavy lift because it doesn’t want Congress to overhaul the law and would rather maintain the education policies states are implementing through NCLB waivers.

In an interview with Education Week Monday evening, Duncan dismissed that idea. He said he’s pushing the issue in part because states have been begging his department for more resources for early-childhood education programs. That includes states with Republican governors, Duncan was quick to point out.

(Stay tuned for more a in-depth breakdown of our sit down with Duncan tomorrow!)

Notably, the administration and Murray haven’t really done a great job of defining what they mean by a pre-K focus. Do they mean a big new program, along the lines of the Strong Start for America’s Schools Act? Or do they just mean an authorization for preschool development grants, which would be a much easier lift?

As for negotiations between Alexander and Murray, the chairman said the two are still on track to mark up their negotiated bill the week of April 13. It’s likely we’ll see pieces of their proposal in the next week, so hang tight.