With most of the Democratic candidates for president playing up how they would alter President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act and its funding, it might appear as if early-childhood education won’t get much attention in this year’s campaign.
A closer look at the Democrats’ positions shows strong support and agreement among the contenders on policies such as universal preschool, increased funding for child care and Head Start, and more training and pay for child- care providers.
The question, however, will be whether any of those topics will become more significant as the election nears.
“Once there is a Democratic candidate put before the president, the issues will be more clearly defined,” predicted Mark Greenberg, the director of policy at the Center for Law and Social Policy, a Washington group that focuses on issues facing low- income families.
A recent survey of the Democratic candidates by Take Care Net, a coalition of organizations involved in worklife issues, confirms that the presidential hopefuls believe families are tremendously concerned about the availability and quality of child-care and preschool programs.
“The results of our survey are enormously encouraging,” Ellen Bravo, the director of 9to5, National Association of Working Women in Milwaukee, said during a Jan. 13 press conference in Washington where the responses were released. “On the eve of the Iowa caucus, this is one area where the Democratic candidates show striking unanimity and where a number of them are taking initiatives.”
Nancy Segal, who co-chairs Take Care Net, added that her organization hopes that by asking about child care, after-school programs, and other issues important to parents, “we’re pushing them to develop positions.”
That’s also the goal of the Every Child Matters Education Fund, a nonprofit organization based in Washington that was founded in 2002 to make children’s issues a political priority.
Before the Jan. 19 Iowa caucuses, the group conducted polls, participated in civic events, and held candidate forums in the state. It was doing similar things in New Hampshire before the Jan. 27 primary there.
While the seven Democratic candidates remaining in the race as of last week say they support voluntary, universal preschool, a few of them provide specifics about what they would propose if elected.
For example, former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean says his $110 billion “Invest for Success” plan would include enough money to offer prekindergarten to every 4-year-old, while retired U.S. Army Gen. Wesley K. Clark has proposed a $70 billion universal-preschool plan. Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, has presented a less ambitious plan of $3 billion, which would be modeled after his state’s Smart Start program. His “Great Promise” plan would aim to serve a million children in such settings as nonprofit programs, community centers, schools, and churches.
Programs for young children also came up in a Jan. 4 debate in Iowa, when Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts said U.S. adults were more willing “to send people to prison rather than invest $10,000 a year [per child] in Head Start, Early Start, Smart Start, early-childhood education. There is a complete abdication of responsibility.”
President Bush’s re- election campaign refers questions to his campaign Web site—www.georgewbush.com—which includes information on Mr. Bush’s efforts to improve early literacy skills among preschoolers through Early Reading First grants.
The site also promotes the president’s proposed pilot plan to integrate Head Start programs with state pre-K programs by allowing a handful to states to receive federal Head Start money, which is currently granted directly to local agencies.
Republican supporters of the idea contend that Mr. Bush’s plan would allow states to serve more children, and that states would have to show that they already had strong early-childhood-education standards in order to be considered for the program.
But Krista Kafer, the senior education policy analyst at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said it might be difficult for the president to score points among advocates for early-childhood education if he’s not proposing new funding or buying in to the universal-preschool message.
“Everyone who says, ‘Hey, those programs are not a panacea’ is pegged as anti-child,” Ms. Kafer said.
If Congress decides to continue working on the reauthorization of the federal Head Start preschool program this year, Mr. Greenberg said the president’s pilot proposal could more sharply illustrate the philosophical differences between Mr. Bush and the Democratic candidates, many of whom oppose the plan.
Sen. Edwards has called President Bush’s Head Start plan “an enormous mistake.”
“It’s shortsighted, it takes the funds away that are desperately needed by kids, and in fact, we should be doing just the opposite,” he said in an October forum.
The Democratic candidates have also said they want to “fully fund” Head Start and expand it to serve all eligible children. Currently the program serves roughly 900,000 preschoolers—about 60 percent of those who are eligible.
Another issue that Congress must tackle is the overdue reauthorization of the main federal welfare law, which includes funding for the Child Care and Development Block Grant.
While the Bush administration has taken the position that no additional federal money for child-care subsidies is necessary, the Democratic candidates say they would increase the annual child-care budget of $4.8 billion to help low-income and working-poor parents keep their jobs.
“The more hours we expect parents to be at work means more hours children will need to be in child care,” Sen. Kerry wrote in response to a candidate survey, sponsored by the Children’s Policy Coalition, a group of about 30 advocacy organizations in Iowa.
Mr. Greenberg added that in recent years, the debate over child care has shifted. Discussions used to focus on raising quality vs. giving parents a choice of providers. Now, he said, there’s greater agreement between the political parties on the connections between the early years children spend in out-of- home care and their readiness for school.
“They’re coming together on a shared goal,” he said.
Surveys distributed to the Democratic candidates have also asked about their opinions on funding for after-school programs.
The Every Child Matters forum showed that, without exception, the candidates support after-school programs as a way to give students constructive activities during the out-of-school hours.
“That speaks to the institutionalization of the issue,” said Joyce Shortt, a co- director of the National Institute on Out-of-School Time, a research and advocacy organization based in Wellesley, Mass. “The way the candidates talk about it is that it’s almost part of the infrastructure now.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 28, 2004 edition of Education Week as Democratic Hopefuls Back Early-Childhood Policies