Early Childhood

Obama Push to Boost Early-Ed. Programs Still Short on Details

By Alyson Klein — February 19, 2013 9 min read
President Barack Obama visits a prekindergarten classroom at College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center in Decatur, Ga., days after proposing a federal effort to boost early learning.
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President Barack Obama used his first State of the Union address since winning re-election to put education at the center of his broader strategy to bolster the nation’s economic prospects. He is proposing to dramatically expand preschool access for low- and middle-income children and to create a new competitive program aimed at helping high school students prepare for the careers of the future.

But the administration has yet to spell out the details—including additional funding, if any—of those proposals, particularly the preschool expansion.

Big questions loom, including how the administration plans to entice states to participate in what’s being billed as a new federal-state preschool partnership, and how the White House would seek to pay for the plan and get it through a Congress that is trying to head off cuts to existing programs, not create new ones.

Instead, Mr. Obama used the week of the Feb. 12 State of the Union speech to make the case for scaling up early-childhood programs and shine a spotlight on states that are already embracing universal prekindergarten, including Georgia and Oklahoma.

“Every dollar we invest in high-quality early education can save more than $7 later on—boosting graduation rates, reducing teen pregnancy, reducing violent crime,” said Mr. Obama in a speech in Decatur, Ga., just after visiting the city’s College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center, which he held up as an example of the type of program he’d like to see nationwide. At the center, he said, “Nearly 200 little kids are spending full days learning in classrooms with highly qualified teachers. ... They’re learning math, writing, how to tell stories.”

Mr. Obama wants incentives for more states to offer universal prekindergarten for 4-year-olds, provide full-day kindergarten, and expand home-visiting services for the youngest children—all while making sure program proliferation goes hand in hand with quality.

Preschool advocates are welcoming a new federal focus on the youngest learners, even as they acknowledge the political hurdles. Kris Perry, the executive director of the First Five Years Fund, in Chicago, said the proposal must be palatable to a range of interested groups, including cash-strapped state legislatures that would need to kick in a portion of the funds under the type of federal-state cost-sharing arrangement the administration has envisioned.

Pressing His Case

In his first State of the Union speech since securing re-election, President Barack Obama tied a package of education and related initiatives, from early childhood through college access and gun control, to the nation’s future economic success and safety. Among the proposals:

Universal Preschool
Provide high-quality preschool to more children by offering incentives to states that want to expand high-quality preschool programs and offer full-day kindergarten.

“Let’s do what works and make sure none of our children start the race of life already behind. Let’s give our kids that chance.”

College and Career Readiness
Launch a Race to the Top-style competition to help high schools become more focused on getting students ready for postsecondary education and the workplace.

“I’m announcing a new challenge to redesign America’s high schools so they better equip graduates for ... the skills today’s employers are looking for to fill the jobs that are there right now and will be there in the future.”

Student Financial Aid
Link some federal college financial aid to student outcomes, such as graduation rates.

“I ask Congress to change the Higher Education Act so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid.”

Enact a comprehensive immigration overhaul that includes a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children.

“Our economy is stronger when we harness the talents and ingenuity of striving, hopeful immigrants.”

School Safety
Reduce gun violence to prevent another massacre similar to the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., by requiring background checks for gun-purchasers, and beefing up school safety and mental-health programs.

“It has been two months since Newtown. ... Overwhelming majorities of Americans ... have come together around common-sense reform, like background checks that will make it harder for criminals to get their hands on a gun.”

SOURCE: White House

“We need the federal legislation to be strong on guidelines and accountability, but with enough flexibility that [states] can use it,” Ms. Perry said.

White House aides declined to specify just how much of the cost of the proposal would fall to states—and what the overall price tag would be.

Political Perils

But Republicans in Congress are already eyeing the proposal with skepticism. U.S. Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, noted in a statement that, in his view, it’s unclear whether the federal government’s current investments in early childhood are effective, including for the $8 billion Head Start program, administered through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“Before we spend more taxpayer dollars on new programs, we must first review what is and is not working in existing initiatives, such as Head Start,” Rep. Kline said in a statement. “I look forward to receiving substantive details about the president’s early-childhood-education proposal and hope the administration will shed more light on how they plan to ensure this new initiative will benefit children while also remaining accountable to taxpayers.”

White House aides have said only that the proposals wouldn’t add to the federal deficit and promised more details on funding when President Obama releases his budget in the coming months for fiscal 2014, which begins on Oct. 1.

Lisa Guernsey, the director of the early-education initiative at the New America Foundation, a think tank in Washington, is optimistic that the proposal could find GOP support. She noted that some Republican governors, including Richard Snyder in Michigan and Robert Bentley in Alabama, are already seeking to expand access to prekindergarten for 4-year-olds and might welcome the administration’s investment.

Advocates Cheered

Some early-childhood experts are hoping the administration can find the funds.

James J. Heckman, a Nobel-Prize winning economist who has studied the economic effect of early-childhood programs, said that high-quality preschool programs for the most-disadvantaged children provide a high return on investment that is not as easy to measure as simply looking at test scores or academic performance.

Head Start, in particular, has come under fire for “fade out"—children enrolled in the program are academically indistinguishable from their peers by 3rd grade, according to a study released in December that was commissioned by the HHS.

“But what we’ve learned is that these programs were producing these character skills, soft skills, noncognitive skills, and even as we found recently, improved benefits in health,” Mr. Heckman, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, said.

However, Lindsey M. Burke, a fellow in federal and state education issues at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington think tank, said, “It’s hard to believe the federal government would push to increase federal spending in the wake of HHS’ Head Start report.”

Ms. Burke says she believes a voucher program similar to Florida’s, which provides approximately $2,500 to parents to seek private preschool providers for their children, would be a more useful way to spend taxpayer dollars.

The administration proposes partnering with states through a cost-sharing arrangement to extend federal funds to reach all low- and moderate-income families with 4-year-olds. Children from families that make at or below 200 percent of the poverty level would be eligible. The money would flow from the U.S. Department of Education to states through a formula, and then be passed along to local school districts and other providers. States would get an incentive—it remained unclear whether that would mean extra resources or flexibility with other federal funds—for allowing additional children to join their expanded preschool programs. To tap the funding, programs would have to demonstrate quality, through state-level standards for early learning, qualified teachers, and a plan for assessment systems. States would also be encouraged—presumably with new, or freed-up money—to offer full-day kindergarten. Only 10 states and the District of Columbia provide full, free access to such programs, according to the White House.

The plan would leave in place Head Start, which helps low-income children get ready for school. Head Start centers would serve more children ages birth through age 3, while 4-year-olds would be scooped up by the expanded state preschool programs. The administration also wants to bolster Early Head Start, allowing states and communities to compete for grants to provide full-day programs that help children make the transition to preschool.

The administration has already made serious changes to the decades-old Head Start program, requiring hundreds of centers nationwide to recompete for their grants in order to improve program quality.

The administration is also proposing to beef up other services for very young children and babies, including home visits from social workers and nurses, although it doesn’t say just how much that expansion would cost.

Revamping High Schools

The president also called for a competitive grant program for high schools modeled on its signature Race to the Top education redesign program. The new grants would prod states to adopt more-challenging coursework in areas such as computer science, engineering, and technology, as well as provide students with more “real world” experiences, through partnerships with colleges and employers.

In his State of the Union speech, Mr. Obama specifically singled out a high school in Brooklyn, N.Y., called Pathways in Technology Early College High School, which allows students to graduate from high school with an associate degree in computers or engineering.

But details on that proposal also were sketchy last week. It was unclear, for example, whether the funds would be allocated to individual schools or districts, or for states, how much money would be available. And there was no information on whether the new program would be paid for with a fresh round of Race to the Top money, which was financed at nearly $550 million in fiscal 2012, or another source.

Some education policy advocates immediately hailed the idea, including former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise, who now heads up the Alliance for Excellent Education, in Washington, which advocates strengthening secondary education.

“This seems to connect rigor and relevancy well,” said Mr. Wise, although he was interested in seeing more details. “You’ve got to look at ways that you engage students, let them see the practical impact of why they want to stay in school and why they want to do well. [That way] college, postsecondary, and the workplace are no longer distant places; everyone’s together in the same building.”

But if the program is seen as creating a Race to the Top-style grant program for high school curriculum, which is how White House aides described the plan to reporters in advance of the speech, it might well be panned in some conservative circles. Many in the GOP—and even some Democrats—are already unhappy with the Obama administration for encouraging states to adopt the Common Core State Standards, which have been embraced by 46 states and the District of Columbia.

Career-Oriented Curricula

The administration also plans to push a more rigorous, career-relevant curriculum at the high school level by calling for big changes to the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education program, which is financed at a little over $1 billion, making it the largest federal program for high schools. Last year, the administration proposed a plan to revamp the program, which was last reauthorized in 2006.

Under the new proposal, states would get much more say in what sort of career and technical education programs are financed so that programs can help meet states’ job needs. The plan also would require school districts to share grants with postsecondary institutions and business partners. Right now, the funding is separate.

Mr. Obama also urged lawmakers to pick up another stalled proposal: tying federal college financial aid in part to student outcomes, such as graduation rates for traditionally underserved students. That idea was initially floated in last year’s State of the Union Address, but never approved in Congress.

In the Republican response to Mr. Obama’s speech, U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, thought to be a top contender for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, didn’t criticize the president’s proposals to expand preschool or the Race to the Top program. Instead, he touted his party’s own ideas: encouraging more Advanced Placement courses and vocational and career training, and more school choice, especially for special-needs children.

He said he supported federal financial aid—just not spending more money on it.

“It’s also about strengthening and modernizing,” Sen. Rubio said. “A 21st-century workforce should not be forced to accept 20th-century education solutions. Today’s students aren’t only 18-year-olds. ... They’re workers who have lost jobs that are never coming back and need to be retrained.”

Staff Writer Christina A. Samuels and Assistant Editor Michele McNeil contributed to this report.
A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2013 edition of Education Week as Obama Pressing Boost for Pre-K


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