Early education programs fared poorly under the fiscal year 2008 omnibus appropriations bill signed by President Bush in late December. Of 9 federal programs that provide support for early education, only one—Title I—received a significant funding increase—$1 billion, bringing Title I funding to $13.9 billion for 2008. But, because Title I funds are used to improve education for disadvantaged students from preschool through high school, only a fraction of this increase will go to early education.
The legislation significantly cuts funding for three early education programs:
- Cuts Reading First, which supports scientifically based literacy programs in kindergarten through third grade, by two-thirds, or $636 million;
- Cuts Even Start, which supports family literacy, parenting classes, and early education, cut by 20 percent, or $16 million;
- Eliminates the Early Childhood Educator Professional Development program.
Several other programs received level funding—a cut in real terms—or small cuts due to a 1.74% across the board recission for all programs. As a result, total funding for early education programs other than Title I fell by $677 million. These cuts exceed any likely increase in school districts’ early education spending as a result of Title I increases.
Would early education programs have faired better under a Labor-HHS-Education appropriations bill that the President vetoed earlier this fall? That bill would have provided a larger, nearly $1.5 billion, increase in Title funding, and would have increased funding for Head Start and the Child Care and Development Block Grant (which can be used to fund pre-k) by about $185 million. But it also made large cuts—totaling more than $650 million—to Reading First, Even Start, and the Early Childhood Educator Professional Development Program.
Congress’ and the President’s tightfistedness with early education programs stands in stark contrast to the states, 36 of which increased early education by a total of more than $500 million for fiscal year 2008, as well as rhetoric on the presidential campaign trail, where leading Democratic candidates have proposed billions in new early education investments.
Why such a disconnect? The biggest reason is politics around the Reading First program, which accounted for the bulk of funding cuts to early education. The Reading First initiative is strongly identified with President Bush, who made it a signature campaign proposal in 2000, and has been
embroiled in a controversy over efforts by some former Department of Education staff to steer state grantees toward particular reading programs. Appropriators saw cuts in Reading First funding as a way to hold the Department accountable for these problems.
That’s unfortunate, because cutting Reading First doesn’t just hurt the Department; it hurts children by undermining state efforts to improve literacy instruction. These cuts are particularly disappointing because early evidence suggests that, despite the problems with the Department’s implementation, Reading First is having positive impacts on students’ reading skills. Even the organizations that first complained about how the Department was implementing Reading First don’t want to see its funding cut.
More fundamentally, Members of Congress and the President don’t seem to see early education as a priority the way state elected officials are. That’s hardly surprising: Early education advocates, pessimistic about the chances of enacting new early education investments under a Republican
President and Congress, have spent much of the past 7 years focused on state-level advocacy. The significant expansion in state pre-k funding is the result of that advocacy. But it’s not progress if states expand early education funding while the federal government cuts it.
If the rhetoric on the presidential campaign trail is any guide, early education issues are going to be getting more attention at the federal level. Supporters of high-quality, aligned systems of early education must educate members of Congress—on both sides of the aisle—about the benefits
of investing in PK-3 early education.