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Questions Swirling Around Obama’s Second-Term Steps on Early Learning

Published:  January 22, 2013
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Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Education.

As President Obama gave his second inaugural address yesterday, many of us couldn’t help but linger over these words:  “We are true to our creed,” Obama said, “when a little girl born into the bleakest poverty knows that she has the same chance to succeed as anybody else, because she is an American; she is free, and she is equal, not just in the eyes of God but also in our own.” 

Could Obama be signaling that he plans to push for better opportunities for young children? If so, exactly what does he have in mind? Last Monday, at an event here at the New America Foundation, White House education adviser Roberto Rodriguez offered detailed remarks about challenges that remain in early education and said the administration is “committed to an agenda that has at its center quality, innovation and access.” Access and quality have been named as agenda items for years, and “innovation” is obviously part of the Investing in Innovation Fund (and arguably, the Early Learning Challenge grants), but these are relatively small programs. So far, the Obama Administration has not made sweeping changes that could open early childhood education to many more children. With funds tight, what might be ahead?

An article in the Huffington Post last Friday, “Obama Evaluating Early Childhood Education Push in his Second Term,” contributed to the hubbub by reporting a potential new universal pre-K program for 4-year olds, to be managed by states.* Columnist Ezra Klein of the Washington Post noted yesterday that rumors abound over what early childhood changes the president may announce.

But before early childhood observers and advocates get too excited (or concerned), remember: There is not yet any actual proposal to analyze. Obama administration officials are mum about what might be coming. The Department of Education’s acting press secretary Daren Briscoe said on Monday that the Huffington Post piece contained inaccuracies but would not comment further.

It is unlikely that even broad strokes will be visible before Obama’s State of the Union address on February 12. And if the president describes policy changes at that time, the details may not be available until the release of his budget proposals for fiscal 2014, which will be released later than the usual early February time frame.

So at the moment, our job is to hone our questions: Are yet more big changes ahead for Head Start, and how much change is even possible without Congress reauthorizing the Head Start law? Will the two U.S. agencies -- the U.S. Department of Education and Health and Human Services -- come up with new ways to encourage states to blend child care subsidies and Head Start dollars?  Could the pending reauthorization of the Child Care and Redevelopment Block Grant make any difference? Will the U.S. Department of Education encourage states and school districts to use existing federal dollars (such as Title I, for disadvantaged children, and Title II, for professional development) to increase access and quality of pre-kindergarten and kindergarten programs? Have they found more carrots and sticks to enable them to do so? Or could another Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge be in the offing?

Ever since the downscaling of the 2009 vision for the Early Learning Challenge, and the lack of attention to early learning in the presidential campaign, many advocates have been hungering for Obama to do something bolder in the early childhood realm. For example, two weeks ago, the Schott Foundation and the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education issued an open letter to Obama calling on him to focus on early childhood education.  My colleague Laura Bornfreund, in her remarks at our event at the New America Foundation last week, urged the administration to push states and districts to improve children’s first years in elementary school -- from pre-K through third grades -- as part of efforts to turnaround failing schools.  Numbers released last month from the Child Well-Being Index, which show an increase in child poverty and a decrease in median family incomes since 2001, add urgency to these arguments. 

It’s easy to get jaded here in Washington, especially when the pending fiscal fights of 2013 loom large. But that doesn’t mean we won’t be watching closely to see if maybe something new and bold might come from Obama’s second term to give that little girl born into the bleakest poverty a better chance to succeed.

 

* I was interviewed by Huffington Post reporter Joy Resmovits last month. My quoted comments in her January 18 article derived from my attempt to set some historical context. I was asked about the idea of sending federal dollars to states, instead of directly to local organizations, to run Head Start centers.

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