With Congress considering a massive stimulus package intended to jumpstart the struggling economy, it’s not surprising that everyone in Washington wants to make sure their pet issues get a piece of the action. There are even rumors that pre-k investments could be part of the stimulus package.
Early Ed Watch believes that it’s time for a much more assertive federal role in expanding access to high-quality pre-k programs. But we don’t think the stimulus package is the way to do it.
Pre-k and the stimulus are simply not a good match. Stimulus spending is supposed to be a temporary measure to stimulate demand by quickly injecting federal dollars into the economy. But an effective federal pre-k initiative would require sustained, stable investment. Moreover, implementing pre-k investments the right way takes time, which makes pre-k investments a bad fit for short term stimulus. And, as Andy Rotherham notes, sound pre-k investments need to be focused on providing high-quality early education for young children—not providing jobs for adults.
Early childhood advocates and education reformers should definitely work to ensure President-elect Obama and the incoming Congress fulfill the many campaign pledges they made to increase federal early education spending. But not in the stimulus.
That said, there are several good ways the stimulus package could help support quality pre-k. First, it could help plug holes in states’ budgets. The economic downturn has plunged many states in red ink, and while most states have so far protected existing pre-k investments, that’s going to become increasingly difficult. Since the federal government doesn’t have to balance its budget the way states do, it can help them maintain program levels in tough economic times. General aid to states would help them maintain early education investments. A small, limited-time program of federal matching funds designed to help states maintain pre-k services, while creating incentives for them to maintain existing investment levels, could also make sense.
Second, it’s looking increasingly likely that the stimulus will include some type of school modernization component. President-elect Obama specifically mentioned school modernization in Weekly Address. And the Reid-Byrd economic recovery package introduced in the Senate this September would provide $2 billion for school repairs. Many states and school districts have struggled to find and fund appropriate facilities for early education programs, so federal school modernization funding could help address this problem. One thing for Congress to keep in mind: Community-based providers play a key role in many state pre-k programs, but often face major challenges to improving or obtaining facilities. Congress should ensure that the school modernization funding stream is sufficiently flexible to allow the community-based providers in state pre-k programs--not just district-run pre-k--to access funds.
Finally, we need to seize this opportunity to recruit high-quality individuals into the early education field. Lack of qualified teachers is one of the biggest obstacles to improve educational quality in general and access to high-quality pre-k in particular. We should ensure that job training and assistance programs provide displaced workers who want to become early educators—particularly those who already have college degrees—access to the education they need to be qualified to teach PK-3 students. And we should also encourage states and institutions of higher education to develop new early educator training and professional development modules that allow career-changers to acquire the skills and knowledge to teach young children in an efficient and cost-effective way.
The economic downturn poses a number of challenges for early education, but it is also an opportunity to address key issues related to facilities and human capital—if we act quickly to take advantage of those opportunities.