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Some of McCain’s Pre-K Plans Are Already Law

By Alyson Klein — September 12, 2008 2 min read
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So Sen. John McCain has some ideas for pre-K that are sure to generate broad support in Congress ... because lawmakers have already passed them.

On his campaign Web site, McCain said he thinks that there should be “Centers for Excellence” for Head Start programs to hold out certain programs as models for best practices.

While there are some excellent Head Start centers that can serve as models for leadership and best practices, far too many Head Start centers have fallen prey to the same institutional flaws that have undermined the larger public education system. They lack quality instructors; they lack accountability to parents; and they are focused on process, not outcomes. We should build Centers for Excellence in Head Start that actually leads to excellence in all of the pre-K and early learning programs that taxpayers support.

McCain’s colleagues in Congress obviously agree with the idea, since they included the Centers for Excellence in the Head Start reauthorization that President Bush signed into law last fall.

So ... way to go out on a limb and think outside the box there, senator. Still, an advocate told me that the fact that McCain has proposed the Centers for Excellence means he would probably provide funding for them.

But some of McCain’s other proposals aren’t likely to be as popular because lawmakers have already dissed them, again during the years-long debate over Head Start reauthorization.

McCain’s plan says that federally supported programs--including Head Start--must use “meaningful, measurable standards designed to determine that students are ready for school by measuring their school readiness skills.”

That sounds suspiciously similar to the National Reporting System, a Bush administration initiative to test Head Start students. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said the test wasn’t fair, in part because it’s tough to design assessments to measure learning outcomes for kids that young. Lawmakers got rid of the tests during the reauthorization, over the administration’s objections.

It makes me wonder if McCain was too busy campaigning for president to pay attention to the Head Start renewal. Neither he nor Sen. Barack Obama showed up for the final vote on the bill (it passed the Senate 95-0 anyway).

But one part of McCain’s pre-K plan could lead to a big change that won kudos from an advocate. McCain’s plan implies that he’d like to see Head Start and other pre-K instructors receive pay that’s comparable to their K-12 counterparts with similar education levels. The advocate said equal pay and benefits for pre-K teachers could go a long way to improving program quality.

But the advocate was also dismayed that the McCain campaign’s language seems to suggest that the $25 billion the federal government spends on pre-K is sufficient. Many Head Start and other federally funded programs serve a relatively small percentage of eligible kids, the advocate said.

Meanwhile, in case you were curious, McCain’s running mate on the Republican ticket, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, isn’t a huge supporter of state-financed pre-K plans. (Not sure yet what she thinks about federal ones).

During her 2006 gubernatorial race, Palin came out against creating a state-financed pre-K system, saying that the private sector was already doing a good job of providing services.

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