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Obama Administration Declares Its Early Education Initiatives a Success

By Lillian Mongeau — September 19, 2016 3 min read
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Citing the additional $6 billion additional dollars spent on early childhood programs between 2009 and 2016, the U.S. Department of Education issued a statement on September 15 laying out the administration’s record of expanding early childhood access.

“Because of historic investments from the Obama Administration, states and cities, more children—particularly those who have been historically underserved—now have access to high-quality early learning,” U.S. Secretary of Education John B. King Jr., said in the Sept. 15 statement. The administration has increased spending in a variety of areas, including home visiting programs, Head Start, child care subsidies, and preschool for young children with disabilities.

“But we can’t stop there,” King said. Indeed, only 41 percent of 4-year-olds and 16 percent of 3-year-olds are enrolled in publicly funded preschool, which includes Head Start and state-funded programs, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.

Even accepting that preschool expansion is the goal, an assessment many would quibble with, there is a very long way to go before reaching President Barack Obama’s stated goal of offering high-quality preschool for every child. There’s also a definite gap between the $6 billion added to the early education budget under Obama and the nearly $76 billion (albeit, over 10 years) that he initially proposed in 2013. He proposed that spending again in 2014, 2015 and now 2016.

Early Learning Challenge and Preschool Development Grants

So were the Obama administration’s efforts on early childhood a success?

Some would point to the fact that Obama’s attention has helped the topic rise to the level of presidential scrutiny for the first time in decades. Both Hillary Clinton, who has a long record in early-education policy, and Donald Trump have offered proposals for reducing the cost of child care and offering at least some paid family leave for some workers.

It’s also clear that two initiatives from the Obama administration, the Race to The Top Early Learning Challenge Grants and Preschool Development Grants, have been very popular in the states. A majority of states applied for the grants and those that won did tend to make changes.

Many states that won the Early Learning Challenge grants created quality evaluation metrics and then began to offer support to programs wishing to improve, for example.

“The number of programs in the states’ highest quality tiers of the rating systems grew from 9,000 to more than 21,000—a 134 percent increase since the states applied for their grants,” says a report on the grants issued in August by the U.S. Department of Education.

States that won the Preschool Development grants added about 28,000 more children sitting in new or improved public preschool classrooms, according to the Education Department. An additional 35,000 students are expected to enroll this fall, also in classrooms that exist or have improved as a result of the federal grants. The administration counts as “improved” preschools that moved to full-day programs or that have reduced child-teacher ratios or class sizes, for example.

Given all that, it is absolutely fair to say there has been an expansion of services and an increase in quality during Obama’s term in office. Whether his initiatives were a success, however, depends very much on your measuring stick. Administration officials and their supporters did not achieve their stated goal of providing preschool for all by a long shot. Nor did they fundamentally revamp the country’s early-education policy, despite getting the topic included in the Every Student Succeeds Act.

So if success to you means a complete overhaul, then no, this administration did not succeed. But if what you’re looking for is clear, incremental change, then, yes, they nailed it.

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