Think Tank Calls for States, Not Feds, to Take the Lead on Early Education

By Lillian Mongeau — November 20, 2015 4 min read
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State governments, based on regional needs and abilities, should be the primary force behind expanding early care and education programs for young children, according to a Nov. 3 report by the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning public policy think tank.

“It makes sense that governors are paying attention to early childhood. States, not the federal government, bear the brunt of down-the-line social and economic costs incurred when children’s earliest foundations are not well laid,” writes report author Katharine B. Stevens.

Stevens proposes that states with approved early-childhood education plans be allowed to pool all of the various federal funding streams and use them in a voucher system similar to Minnesota’s, where vouchers are only valid at state-approved providers.

“This proposal builds on the impressive work of those states, giving them the flexibility to combine growing state funds with multiple federal funding streams and thus amplifying their ability to do the right thing for poor children and families,” Stevens writes.

Before arriving at her conclusion, Stevens spends 26 pages detailing the history of publicly provided child care in America stretching back to the city- and state-funded orphanages popular at the turn of the 20th century. Stevens argues that Americans in general and policymakers specifically have lost track of the most important beneficiary of early-care programs: children. Instead, she says, the focus has shifted to keeping adults, including mothers, employed, and that this shift has led us astray. Now, she writes, too many varied federal funding streams lead to complicated programs that do not succeed at their core mission of providing children a warm and happy start in life.

For the student of early education in the U.S., the report makes for very interesting reading. I didn’t know, for example, that the first direct monetary assistance the government offered to indigent children was in the form of “mothers’ pensions.” This was essentially a cash disbursement to widows with children to care for because “a mother’s most important job was to provide a nurturing, healthy home environment for her children to grow up in, which was impossible while also supporting them through paid work.”

The pensions were first paid out in Illinois in 1911, and by 1920, 40 states had adopted mothers’ pension laws. (I then became immediately curious whether my great-grandmother, a single mother of three after her husband died in 1919, was the beneficiary of such a pension. Lillian Walsh was a seamstress to wealthier families, but I don’t know how she cared for her children while she sewed. I do know my great-aunt was sent to kindergarten a year early. But I digress.)

After mother’s pensions, came the ADC, Aid to Dependent Children, program in 1935. That program eventually became AFDC, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the welfare program conservatives decided was far too bloated with “welfare queens” and others who were taking an easy paycheck from the government without even trying to find work. And at this point, the ideological bent of the paper begins to become particularly clear. Stevens argues that ADC/ADFC essentially went from offering aid to children, to primarily offering aid to their parents, many of whom were unmarried, undereducated women, not the pitiable widows the program had been invented to serve. She uses that argument to explain the shift to “welfare-to-work” the program underwent at that point.

Meanwhile, in 1965, Head Start began. The primary federal early-care and education program has changed little over the years, Stevens writes, and continues to focus on child welfare. She also writes that Head Start’s focus on full services for children sometimes comes at the expense of providing sufficient, full-day custodial care for children while their parents work. She doesn’t mention that a lack of sufficient funding is one of the primary reasons cited by Head Start advocates for not always being able to offer full-day programs.

All of which brings us to the current moment. Head Start and various federal welfare-to-work programs provide either direct or subsidized care for young children and the U.S. Department of Education is awarding further federal funding for preschool through Preschool Development Grants and Race To The Top: Early Learning Challenge competitions.

“Today’s federal early-care and education policies are fragmented, inefficient, and unnecessarily complex,” Stevens writes. “Policymakers have gotten locked into choosing among three bad options: tinkering around the edges of existing programs, trying to cut them, or adding new ones on top of what is already in place.”

For Stevens, it is time to stop tinkering and to move into a brand new world of single-stream federal funding for early childhood with states leading on the program level.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.