Early Childhood

Pre-K on Federal Lawmakers’ Radar

March 26, 2013 2 min read

Early-childhood education has attracted a flurry of attention in Congress since President Barack Obama made prekindergarten a focal point of his State of the Union address in February.

The Obama administration has released a bare-bones outline of a plan to expand pre-K access to more 4-year-olds from low-income households. Under the plan, states would have to kick in a portion of the cost. 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.

On the heels of the administration’s announcement, members of Congress unveiled bills aimed at expanding access to early-childhood programs. Many of the proposals dovetail with the Obama plan and could be vehicles for enacting pieces of that plan.

All of those bills have Democratic sponsors, however, and it’s unclear whether an expansion of federal aid for preschool will gain Republican support in Congress. GOP lawmakers are wary of creating another government-financed program in the midst of fiscal belt-tightening. Still, though, a number of Republican governors are eyeing expansions of early-childhood education.

Among the bills that lawmakers have released recently:

Low-Income and Special-Need Provisions

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., a member of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee with a long interest in early-childhood education, has proposed a bill that would provide high-quality prekindergarten to low-income families. That closely echoes the Obama administration’s plan, although Mr. Casey would add a focus on children with special needs.

Under the Casey bill, programs would have to meet certain quality standards—for instance, classes would be limited to 20 children or fewer, with a pupil-teacher ratio of no more than 10-to-1. And prekindergarten teachers would have to earn bachelor’s degrees within six years.

Programs could use the federal money to expand services for children from birth to age 3, or extend their hours. Like the administration, Mr. Casey did not list an overall price tag for his bill.

Federal and State Partnership

Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, has introduced legislation that would expand access to prekindergarten through a federal-state partnership. (Like Sen. Casey’s bill, it is similar to the administration’s general approach.)

States already operating good preschool programs could get money to boost quality and serve more children. Other states could apply for startup funding to get new preschool programs going within two years.

The money would help states train teachers, extend program time, and offer extra services to children, such as health screenings and meals. Ms. Hirono also did not list an overall price tag for her bill.

Grants to Providers

Sens. Mark Begich, D-Alaska, along with Sen. Hirono and Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Al Franken, D-Minn., introduced a measure to offer competitive grants to states to establish and operate high-quality prekindergarten programs.

The bill, which was also introduced in the previous Congress, would help governors wanting to expand existing early-childhood-education systems run by schools, child-care centers, Head Start programs, and other providers.

Public Awareness

Many of the same senators, plus Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., have introduced another bill that would help parents get access to more information about early-childhood programs by setting up a toll-free referral line and website.

A version of this article appeared in the March 27, 2013 edition of Education Week as Congress Eyes Pre-K

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