Last Thursday, Senator Robert P. Casey, Jr. (D-PA) introduced the “Supporting State Systems of Early Learning Act.” The bill is the latest incarnation of the Early Learning Challenge Fund—a competitive grant program to encourage states to build and strengthen high-quality early learning.
The proposed Early Learning Challenge Fund would award two types of grants: “Quality Pathways Grants” for states that have demonstrated progress in building high-quality pre-k programs, and “Development Grants” for states that wish to establish and maintain high-quality pre-k but are not as far along in the process as other states. Among other requirements, the ELCF requires that states match 15 percent of the grant money awarded to them.
President Barack Obama first mentioned the Early Learning Challenge Fund as part of his plan to improve early learning programs in the states during his 2008 campaign for president. The fund made it into the President’s 2010 budget request in February 2009, then was incorporated into the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA) bill that summer. Though SAFRA was later folded into health care reform and eventually signed into law, the Early Learning Challenge Fund had been dropped from the bill by then.
What does the new proposal for an Early Learning Challenge Fund look like? Except for some small changes, the bill introduced by Senator Casey is similar to previous ELCF legislation. Though both the old and the new legislation stipulate 3-year grants for state grantees, the new bill includes a clause that states can extend their grants for two additional years, based on the state’s progress. The new bill also increases the amount of funding set aside for research to 5 percent from 3 percent. The matching requirements have changed from the last ELCF bill that passed the house in 2009—now, states must match a flat 15 percent of the grant money received, as opposed to previously when the matching requirements changed across grant years.
The bill, S. 470, is co-sponsored by Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Patty Murray (D-WA), Chris Coons (D-DE) and Al Franken (D-MN). It has also been endorsed by a wide array of early education advocacy groups.
The burning question, of course, is whether this bill will make any headway in the Senate, let alone the House, this year. Will it be considered for insertion into the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act? Is there another legislative vehicle that might carry it? How large will the fund be – and will it be sustainable year after year? These are questions we’ll be following and posting on in the coming months.
UPDATED 6/6/11: We hyperlinked the title of the bill so that it connects to the PDF of the actual bill, S. 470.