Early Ed Watch

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Proposed ESEA Amendments & Early Learning

Published:  October 26, 2011

Sometime in the coming days the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee will release yet another version of the Harkin Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) bill. This newest version of the law most-recently known as No Child Left Behind is the result of a two-day session to “markup” the bill, which took place late last week. Members of the committee offered more than 70 amendments, 24 of which were adopted. Several other amendments were discussed and then withdrawn by the senators who offered them. But we can expect to see many of those amendments come up later when ESEA makes its way to the Senate floor for consideration by the full body, and three of those withdrawn amendments – two from Senator Robert Casey, Jr. (D-PA) and one from Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) – could greatly expand the presence of early learning in ESEA.

But it may be an uphill battle, since not every relevant legislator is convinced that early childhood education belongs in ESEA. After Casey introduced and then withdrew his amendments, Sen. Mike Enzi (R-WY), ranking member of the HELP committee, thanked him for withdrawing them and said, “ESEA is not the place for more early childhood programs.” Enzi argued that several other federal programs, such as the Child Care and Development Block Grant, are the place to focus on early childhood. Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA) quickly pushed back.

The first Casey amendment would alter Title I by requiring states to review, revise or create early learning guidelines for infants, toddlers and preschoolers, as well as standards for children in kindergarten through third grade. The new guidelines and standards would need to cover all of the domains of child development and learning, including literacy, numeracy and social and emotional development. The standards would also need to reflect research findings and progression in how children develop and learn the necessary skills and content over time, from pre-K forward. This is similar to the standards language in The Continuum of Learning Act introduced by Casey and Rep. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) earlier this year. Read the full amendment here.

A second Casey amendment would create a Pre-K Incentive Fund under Title I to assist states in making voluntary, high-quality universal pre-K programs available to 3- to 5-year-old children, and to help states ease children’s and families’ transition to kindergarten. Grants would be made to states, and states would then make sub-grants to qualified pre-K providers. States would be required to set aside a small portion of the funds for infant and toddler programs. In order to be eligible, pre-K providers would have to maintain a class size of no more than 20 children, with at least one pre-K teacher who has a bachelor’s degree with specialization in early childhood, or who is currently working toward a degree. Providers must use funds to support children’s development across multiple domains of learning and to purchase educational equipment. They could also choose to use the funds to extend the school day or year, to provide transportation or to provide professional development. Read the full amendment here.

The third amendment related to early learning was introduced by Sen. Murray and would add a new title called “Supporting Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten.” The language in the amendment is the same as the language in Murray’s Ready to Learn Act, which she introduced in June; it is also similar in many ways to Casey’s Pre-K Incentive Fund. This new Title X would create a competitive grant program for states to establish and administer high-quality, full-day voluntary pre-kindergarten programs for 4-year olds, with first priority going to children from low-income families and those who have limited proficiency in English. States would also be required to use funds for professional development and to develop or expand early childhood quality rating systems. Read the full amendment here.

The Casey and Murray amendments are similar. The major differences are:

  • Casey’s amendment would award grants to states by formula, while Murray’s amendment would award grants competitively;
  • Murray’s amendment leaves it up to states as to how subgrants are made (i.e. competitively, through a state formula or via some other means), and Casey’s amendment requires local providers to apply to the state;
  • Casey’s amendment requires states to set aside funds for infant and toddler programs, while Murray’s amendment allows states to use any remaining funds to support programs for younger children;
  • Murray’s amendment requires states to use a portion of the funds for quality rating and improvement systems, while Casey’s amendment does not.

Both Casey and Murray stated they intend to bring these amendments up again when ESEA comes to the Senate floor for discussion and debate, but it is uncertain when this will actually happen, or whether an ESEA reauthorization will be able to garner the 60 votes necessary for passage.

Stay tuned for our continuing coverage of Early Learning in ESEA. Our next post will highlight several of the 24 amendments that were adopted during the HELP committee’s last meeting.

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