The fact that President Bush spent parts of two days last week talking about early-childhood education spurred a collective “bravo!” from child-advocacy groups and lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
But when it came to the details—and especially the lack of much extra money to match his plan—the response took on a fractured tone.
Mr. Bush, seeking to build on the success he found with the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, announced several moves to bolster early education. He called for training all Head Start teachers in early-literacy instructional techniques and for accountability measures designed to ensure that Head Start centers meet learning standards established under federal law in 1998.
He also proposed a $45 million research effort over five years to identify effective early- literacy programs and teaching strategies. And he called for all states that receive money under federal child-care and welfare programs to set criteria on quality for early education.
“On the first day of school, children need to know letters and numbers,” the president told an audience in the East Room of the White House. “They need a strong vocabulary. And they need to love books. These are the building blocks of learning, and this nation must provide them.”
The April 3 gathering featured not only administration officials and the usual invited guests, but the celebrated children’s television personality Fred Rogers and the puppets Elmo and Zoe from “Sesame Street.”
Mr. Bush’s plans, which he first announced at a Pennsylvania appearance the day before, received a mixed reception in Congress.
“I commend the president for raising this issue, and I look forward to working with the administration in the days ahead,” said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. But, Mr. Kennedy said, “without new resources, this important initiative is a hollow gesture. It is wrong for the president to ask states to accept this great new responsibility within their existing budgets.”
“To make a real difference for our youngest children,” the senator added, “we must add flesh to the bones of the president’s commitment.”
An Alternative Plan
Mr. Kennedy last week unveiled the broad outlines of legislation he and Sen. George V. Voinovich, R-Ohio, intend to introduce this spring that would provide $1 billion per year in federal grants to states to improve early-childhood education. The incentive grants, a summary of the proposal says, would allow states to leverage existing federal, state, local, and private money to construct a “seamless system.”
Critics of Mr. Bush’s plan note he is offering little extra money.
Some of the largest federal programs supporting early care would see little or no additional money under Mr. Bush’s fiscal 2003 budget request, released in early February.
His 1.9 percent hike for Head Start would allow the program, at $6.7 billion, to maintain its current enrollment of 915,000 children. Mr. Bush proposed to freeze funding this year for the $4.8 billion child-care block grant, which provides child-care subsidies to low-income families.
Joan Lombardi, the director of the Children’s Project, a Washington- based advocacy group, said she was especially disappointed that the president’s plan does not contain measures to attract and retain high-quality staff members for early-learning programs.
“The most important issue we have in early childhood right now is that we don’t have a workforce that can deliver what we know young children deserve, and their plan does nothing to address that,” said Ms. Lombardi, who served as a director of child care at the Department of Health and Human Services under President Clinton.
She said another major problem is that “families can’t afford to pay for it. Their plan does nothing to address that.”
Margaret Spellings, the president’s domestic-policy adviser, suggested that improvements don’t necessarily demand more funding.
“I’m not sure it’s all about money,” she said. “It’s about the kinds of activities that are going on.”
Ms. Spellings also cautioned that the plan put forward last week does not reflect the totality of President Bush’s ideas for early-childhood education. Candidate Bush, for instance, had suggested in 2000 that the Department of Education take over administration of Head Start. But the White House made no mention of that last week.
“It’s one step,” Ms. Spelling said of the initiative. “I think it’s an ongoing process; as the various relevant reauthorizations come before us, we’ll want to inject some policy.”
Some of the measures announced last week, including those for Head Start, do not require legislation.
Rep. John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, praised the initiative.
“The federal government currently spends about $14 billion every year to help young children receive care outside the home,” he said. “What’s needed is greater flexibility for states, more support for quality teachers, and greater accountability for results. ... [Mr. Bush’s] early-childhood- education plan is built on those principles. “
But several children’s advocates said they found more encouragement in legislation Democrats have put forward in Congress.
For one, Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House education committee, introduced a bill in December that seeks to expand the availability of high-quality, affordable child care for low- income families.
Among other elements, it would give states money to pay stipends to qualified child-care providers as an incentive to enhance training, reduce staff turnover, and attract and retain employees. It also would raise the authorization for child care with the goal of increasing the proportion of eligible families served under the Child Care and Development Block Grant program from only 12 percent today to over 30 percent within five years.
Daniel Weiss, a spokesman for Rep. Miller, argued that the Bush plan falls short not just on funding, but also on the policy front.
He pointed to Mr.Bush’s plan to train the nation’s estimated 50,000 Head Start teachers in early-literacy teaching techniques. The plan contemplates that 2,500 Head Start teachers will attend four-day regional training sessions this summer to become “early-literacy specialists.” They would then return to their Head Start programs and train others.
“The idea that you would be able to create reading specialists among Head Start teachers with four days of training is absurd,” Mr. Weiss said.
Mr. Bush has also sought to infuse accountability into the proposal. Some of that effort stems from requirements set four years ago, during the last rewrite of Head Start, the federal government’s flagship early-childhood program. The law requires Head Start programs to implement standards in early literacy, language, and numbers skills.
But the White House argues that those standards have yet to be effectively implemented.
The administration proposes to strengthen Head Start by ensuring programs are evaluated on whether they effectively prepare children to meet those standards, though administration officials emphasize that they are not talking about giving young children standardized tests.
“We want to say that, in return for federal taxpayers’ help, we expect you to be providing the foundation for reading and math,” President Bush said last week.
The White House summary of Mr. Bush’s plan says that data from local providers on how they are meeting the standards would be used in evaluating contracts with Head Start providers.
Sarah M. Greene, the president and chief executive officer of the National Head Start Association, a Alexandria, Va.- based group, said her group would be opposed to terminating contracts based on academic outcomes.
“That, to me, is punitive and very, very wrong,” she said. “Children learn at all stages and in all ways. You can’t say the program or the teachers haven’t done a good job” based on such evaluations.
Officials at the Department of Health and Human Services, which administers Head Start, sought to downplay the prospect of terminating contracts based on meeting the standards.
“The goal of the accountability system is to make sure that every child receives the best-quality Head Start possible,” said one department official, who asked not to be named. “Programs will have many opportunities to develop improvement plans. ... If years and years and years down the road, children are not progressing, there must be some consideration as to whether this program can provide the best-quality Head Start.”
“I could see that, yes, termination could happen if literacy requirements weren’t met,” added another department official. “But it’s too soon to say how and if that would happen.”
In an Internet bulletin last week, Chester E. Finn Jr., the president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a former assistant secretary of education under President Reagan, criticized members of what he calls the “preschool establishment,” who he said resist strong accountability.
“They’re content with hugs, snowsuits, blocks, swings, gerbils, carrot sticks, and dental visits,” he wrote. “They shun responsibility for advancing a child’s cognitive development.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 10, 2002 edition of Education Week as Bush Outlines Plan To Boost Pre-K Efforts