Image courtesy of Flickr user Aristocrat under Creative Commons license.
A year ago, when our blog singled out nine “hot spots” that would attract a lot of attention in the coming year, we didn’t focus much on budgets, deficits and tax reform – except to point out that full-day kindergarten was on the chopping block in some districts.
Expect this year to be different.
In a series of six short posts, we predict the big issues of 2011 for those who want to improve education programs spanning childhood from birth through third grade. Do you agree with our picks? What have we missed? We’d love to have your input – please don't hesitate to join the conversation below.
1. Federal Budget Constraints
States and localities have been coping with constrained budgets for years, even with the financial boost provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Now all signs point to the federal government tightening its belt too, especially with the latest focus on the budget deficit and national debt levels spurred in part by a series of serious bi-partisan reports released late last year. (Read the blog from New America’s Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget for helpful analysis.)
What does this mean for early education? A lot. Most working families – who are typically at the beginning of their wage-earning years and therefore bringing in low salaries – will not be able to afford high-quality programs for their preschool children without public subsidies and state-funded pre-k programs. They will continue to scramble to find and pay for good caregivers and high-quality afternoon programs for those kids in underfunded kindergarten programs, such as those that end at 11:30 in the morning instead of extending through a full school day. Children in those programs will miss crucial years of exposure to social and intellectual experiences that research shows they need to be successful in school and life.
Funding woes must not cause early education reforms to screech to a halt. Yes, the chances of new programs being funded are nearly nil, which is a bitter pill to swallow for those who worked hard to design the Early Learning Challenge Fund. And yes, cuts of $100 billion and a return to 2008 levels of federal spending, as championed by Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) according to the National Journal and other news outlets, would inevitably lead many children to be cut from the rolls of early learning programs. This will be among the fights to watch as March 4 approaches, the latest deadline for Congress to finally pass a fiscal year 2011 budget.
Still, a sustained focus on early ed is not only possible but imperative. At the very least, school districts can still make smart moves to align their elementary school grades with pre-k programs; school districts and states can improve data collection to encompass more information about children’s early learning experiences; and schools can use existing funds for professional development on programs with evidence of improving the quality of instruction for teachers of young kids.
Next up: Hot Spot #2: The Elementary and Secondary Education Act