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New Details: Obama’s Pre-K Proposal Stresses Birth through Five Continuum, Presents Political Challenges

Published:  February 14, 2013

In President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday, he called on Congress to expand high-quality early learning opportunities to low- and moderate-income children. Today, with the release of a White House document and a speech at a Decatur, Ga. pre-K center, Obama sketched more of the plan’s details.

Under the White House’s proposal, the Department of Education would partner with every state to provide federal funds to expand high-quality pre-K to four-year-olds from families below 200 percent of the federal poverty line – about $46,000 for a family of four. States would be required to share the costs of the program, with federal funds distributed through a formula according to each state’s proportion of low- and moderate-income four-year-olds. Federal incentives would encourage states to expand pre-K access for middle-class families, too, although those parents could be expected to pay some tuition fees.

Additionally, the president included proposals that bookend pre-K by providing services for younger and older children, as well. Younger children would be served under a partnership program between Early Head Start and child care providers, containing a federally-funded competition to design well-aligned early learning systems, and an expanded federal evidence-based home visiting program. The Department of Education would provide incentives to states to offer full-day kindergarten, but only as a secondary priority, after providing pre-K to all low- and moderate-income four-year-olds.

The three-page fact sheet gives us a lot to be excited about. It is not often that early learning takes center stage in the national debate. The administration’s proposal is a promising blend of quality and access concerns, and emphasizes the birth-through-five continuum that we’ve written about extensively. We’re excited for more details in the coming weeks – but in the meantime, here are some of our initial questions.

  • What Does the White House Mean by ‘Quality’?

As we explained yesterday, quality is paramount if the significant investments in preschool proposed by the president are expected to improve school readiness and student outcomes. That’s why we keenly examined the quality standards states must meet to access the new federal pre-K funding in the president’s plan. Similar to the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grants, states must have standards for early learning, qualified teachers and “a plan to implement comprehensive data and assessment systems.”

But today’s proposal goes further, specifying that programs “across the states would meet common and consistent standards for quality.” Although 49 states have comprehensive early learning standards, they are in no way uniform across the country. Does the Department envision a Common Core State Standards for pre-K? If not, how will the Department measure and ensure consistency across states in terms of teacher training and compensation, class sizes and adult-to-child ratios, curriculum, assessment and program evaluation? Perhaps states will demonstrate they meet the benchmarks through their preschool legislation or through Quality Rating and Improvement Systems. More critically, why did the Department exclude one area of quality essential to improving school readiness: the quality of the interactions between teachers and children?

  • What Does a Qualified Workforce Look Like?

The President’s proposal calls for “[q]ualified teachers for all preschool classrooms” and “well-trained teachers, who are paid comparably to K-12 staff.” In K-12, under federal law, qualified teachers are those with a bachelor’s degree and certification in the subject area they teach. Should the same be true for pre-K? This is the case in Oklahoma and Georgia, the two states mentioned in President Obama’s State of the Union address. Oklahoma and Georgia also pay pre-K teachers on the same scale as K-12 teachers. According to NIEER, only 27 other states require pre-K teachers to have bachelor’s degrees; 45 require specialized training in early childhood. But few other states pay pre-K teachers what they pay K-12 teachers.

If the push is for pre-K teachers to be degreed, then what kinds of incentives will be provided to support them in continuing their education? And will states be able to commit to paying these teachers more? Part of improving the quality of early education programs, birth through five, is improving the quality of the workforce. All early childhood teachers need an understanding of how children learn and develop, need to know how to interact with children in a meaningful way, and must have a deep knowledge in science, history, math and the arts so they can provide quality experiences for children to explore and learn about the world around them.

  • What Does This Mean for Head Start?

The proposal says the Administration will "maintain and build on" its funding for Head Start. That should reassure many in the Head Start community who wondered if the federal government wanted to make major changes to the program. The proposal continues by saying it will "support a greater share of infants, toddlers and 3-year-olds in America's Head Start centers, while state preschool settings will serve a greater share of 4-year-olds." This shift to a "younger" Head Start is worth watching – a few years ago we called it the Benjamin Buttonization of Head Start. It derives from more and more states taking on the role of providing preschool for 4-year-olds at the same time that federal Head Start programs enroll more 3-year-olds, and that the Early Head Start program expands. The president's proposal adds momentum to this trend, enabling states to take on more of the role of building PreK-12 systems while the federal government assists with programs for younger children from disadvantaged families. Those PreK-12 systems, meanwhile, could very well include Head Start if states recognized high-quality Head Start programs among the "partner providers" described in the proposal.

  • How Could This Proposal Become a Law?

Without Congressional action, the president’s early education proposal could be dead in the water. But there a few actions the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services could take on their own. For example, if there are subsequent rounds of Race to the Top or the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge, the Department of Education could stipulate that to apply, full-day kindergarten must be an available option in all school districts, at no cost to parents.

How might the rest of the plan be realized? Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (also known as No Child Left Behind) could be one option. There have been proposals by members of Congress to add a stronger early learning component to ESEA. These proposals, however, have received little bipartisan support so far. Also, the reauthorization of ESEA is already six years overdue and there are few indications that it is a top priority for Congress this year. Head Start is also up for reauthorization, which could provide a platform for some of the President’s ideas. But again, whether Congress gets to this anytime soon is an open question. Lastly, the president also reiterated his call for new investments to expand access and quality in the Child Care and Development Block Grant program. Increasing the focus on quality in CCDBG is something that has been discussed within the Senate HELP Committee, too, but we have yet to see a bill introduced to reauthorize CCDBG.

  • Can We Afford the Plan?

Along with questions of legislative feasibility come questions of budgetary reality. The United States has faced ongoing budget instability throughout the recession, followed by calls from some for new austerity measures to reduce the deficit. A law enacted last year even established statutory limits on federal spending through 2022, enforceable by mandatory, automatic across-the-board cuts. That means any new programs will require cuts elsewhere in the budget, and/or new revenue measures to stay within these spending caps.

Between state and federal spending, already about $9 billion a year goes to pre-K programs. National universal pre-K, we estimate, could total between $10 and $15 billion more annually. The White House doesn’t attach any cost estimates to its new proposal, but the figure is certain to be much higher than many lawmakers are comfortable with. Look to the president’s budget, expected in early March, for signals from the White House as to how serious they are about implementing the proposal – and how politically viable it really is.  

Check back with Early Ed Watch for more analysis soon.

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