Early Childhood

Congress Weighs Bills on Early-Childhood Education

By Linda Jacobson — October 02, 2007 5 min read
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Only a few months after Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi convened a “national summit on America’s children,” Congress has at least three different proposals on early-childhood education to consider.

Since that May event, several lawmakers have been crafting legislation that would build upon the steady growth of prekindergarten programs that has already occurred in the states.

In what pre-K supporters are calling a “trickle-up” effect, three federal plans have been offered that call for tying preschool education to the No Child Left Behind Act, which primarily focuses on K-12 schools.

“We feel like these issues are really moving forward,” said Kathy Patterson, the federal-policy director for Pre-K Now, a Washington-based advocacy group.

In May, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., began talking about her proposed Ready to Learn Act, which would provide money to help states offer pre-K programs to more children.

On the campaign trail as she seeks the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen Clinton has referred to building a $10 billion universal preschool system for 4-year-olds, similar to what states such as Florida, Georgia, and Oklahoma have already established.

Her bill, however, doesn’t include a dollar figure and would initially target families that are below 200 percent of the federal poverty level—a population that earns too much to qualify for the federal Head Start program, but not enough to afford private preschool.

“It looks more like a Head Start program for blue-collar families, not a universal program that would subsidize well-off families,” said Bruce Fuller, an education professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and a proponent of targeting early-childhood education to low-income and working-poor families.

State Perspective

Shortly after Sen. Clinton announced her plan, Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., introduced his Prepare All Kids Act, a proposal that would authorize $5 billion in fiscal 2008 and that emphasizes support for full-day programs.

A third plan has come from Rep. Mazie K. Hirono, D-Hawaii, who attended the conference convened by Speaker Pelosi, a Democrat from California. Rep. Hirono is sponsoring the Providing Resources Early for Kids Act, a bill that would authorize sending $1 billion a year to states to help improve existing pre-K programs.

Ms. Patterson said the fact that Hawaii—where Rep. Hirono served as lieutenant governor—does not have a statewide preschool program probably influenced the congresswoman’s efforts to strengthen pre-K programs. And Sen. Casey is a former state treasurer in Pennsylvania, which is now expanding public preschool programs. “I think you’ve got the state perspective in there,” Ms. Patterson said.

On top of those three bills, other proposals on Capitol Hill also aim to improve early-childhood education, either by providing college-loan forgiveness for preschool teachers or creating professional-development programs.

Impact on Head Start

Both the Clinton and Casey bills would make local Head Start agencies eligible to receive federal pre-K money.

“There is a real consensus that Head Start is pre-K,” Ms. Patterson said.

But in the states, cooperation between Head Start programs and pre-K providers has not always been smooth, largely because the two types of programs often have different standards. Head Start is also a comprehensive program addressing children’s health and family-support issues, while many pre-K classes primarily emphasize academic knowledge. (“For Head Start, A Marathon Run,” April 25, 2007.)

Others believe the pre-K proposals might be shifting attention—and resources—away from Head Start, which is undergoing a protracted reauthorization process in Congress.

“We have a federal preschool program, and it’s called Head Start,” said Danielle Ewen, the director of child-care and early-education policy at the Center for Law and Social Policy, based in Washington. “And Head Start only serves half of the eligible kids.”

She added that she was disappointed that following Speaker Pelosi’s May summit meeting—which Ms. Ewen described as a “wonderful day of science” that focused on the comprehensive needs of children from birth through age 5—most of the proposals being offered focus only on preschoolers.

“The message from the summit was invest early,” Ms. Ewen said. “A 4-year-old program doesn’t do that.”

Mixed Feelings

Some state leaders have strong feelings on how the federal government should go about increasing its involvement in preschool.

“We don’t want Congress to run anything,” Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, said last month at a gathering of business, government, and foundation leaders in Telluride, Colo. “But we do need a commitment and resources.” (“Early-Education Advocates Face Tougher Sell,” Sept. 19, 2007.)

Attitudes among people in the early-childhood field have also been mixed toward attaching a preschool component to the No Child Left Behind law, which is heavy on testing and accountability. Many experts argue that because young children come from such a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, it’s unfair to hold them to uniform achievement standards.

Others, though, say the inclusion of pre-K in the reauthorized NCLB law would be an important statement about the contribution preschool education can make to a child’s later success in school.

When the Commission on No Child Left Behind—a bipartisan, 15-member panel formed by the Aspen Institute—released recommendations in February for revising the federal law, only one of the scores of suggestions dealt with preschoolers.

And a draft bill to reauthorize NCLB put forth by the House Education and Labor Committee apparently would not alter the programs for young children under the current law: the Early Reading First literacy program and the option of serving infants, toddlers, and preschoolers with federal Title I money for disadvantaged students.

With Democrats now in control of both the House and the Senate, however, the shift toward increasing services for young children is not a surprise, Ms. Patterson of Pre-K Now said.

“The atmosphere has changed,” she said.

Still, Ms. Ewen of the Center for Law and Social Policy pointed to school districts’ existing option to use Title I money to serve young children, either in classroom-based pre-K programs or through other approaches, such as home visits or health screenings. Integrating preschool into the NCLB law, she warned, could imply that those funds should be used only for 3- and 4-year-olds.

“I would hate to lose that flexibility,” Ms. Ewen said.

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