In an unsurprisingly partisan vote, the Senate education committee has given its stamp of approvalp to legislation that would make President Barack Obama’s vision for expanding preschool to more low- and moderate-income 4-year-olds a reality.
Although the measure has strong backing from the administration—and U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate panel—its political prospects are questionable at best. The bill was approved on a 12-10 vote, with no GOP support.
Republicans on the committee made it clear that they were uniformly against the measure, in part because it would create a new federal program with a price tag of more than $30 billion over the first five years. The bill doesn’t include any mechanism to cover that cost, and the administration’s proposal to pay for it—a new tax on tobacco products—has little support in Congress.
A companion bill has also been introduced in the House by Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the top Democrat on the House education committee. It has a couple of Republican sponsors in that chamber—Rep. Richard Hanna of New York was the first Republican to sign on.
But House GOP leaders, including Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, have balked at the cost. Instead, they are likely to consider a much more limited early-childhood education bill that has already passed the Senate by an overwhelming bipartisan margin: a reauthorization of the Child Care and Development Block Grant program, which last got a makeover in 1996. GOP lawmakers, meanwhile, have their own prescription for improving preschool programs: offering states more flexibility with existing funds. Sen. Lamar Alexander, of Tennessee, the top Republican on the education committee, introduced an alternative proposal that would allow states flexibility in spending nearly $20 billion in federal aid on early-education programs annually through block grants. The funds would be targeted to children in poverty.
“Our reluctance is pouring new money into a program that, to us, looks like a national school board for 3- and 4-year-olds,” he said.
And Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., whose state is a national leader in providing near universal preschool for 4-year-olds, said that while the bill’s “heart is in the right place,” Congress doesn’t have the money to create the new program.
Sen. Harkin said he would like to see the bill go to the floor this summer or fall, possibly just before the midterm elections. It would:
• Offer states that want to expand pre-K access matching grants, with the proportion of a state’s match increasing to 100 percent by the eighth year of the program.
• Give grants to school districts (including charter districts), high-quality early-education providers, or consortia of providers.
• Let states extend the program to children ages birth to 3 from low- and moderate-income families. States also could reserve up to 15 percent of their funding to help serve children from birth to age 3 whose families meet the income requirements.
• Require pre-K programs funded under the bill to meet certain quality standards, such as being full-day, and having teachers with a bachelors’ degree and demonstrated knowledge of early-childhood education.
A version of this article appeared in the May 21, 2014 edition of Education Week as Senate Panel OKs Early-Education Bill