Public funding for early childhood education

How it works now and in the future

08/21/2013  |  By LARRY SCHWEINHART
Early Childhood

School administrators concerned about the educational achievement of all children should lead and advocate for high-quality preschool programs, supporting them in their communities and operating them in their schools if the need and opportunity arise.

Research studies show that such programs help children, particularly from low-income families:

  • Become better prepared for school
  • Improve their school achievement
  • Become more committed to school
  • Improve their chances of graduating from high school and leading productive, socially responsible adult lives

These programs eventually pay for themselves several times over, beginning with savings from prevention of needs for grade retention and special education.

Southeastern states have embraced early childhood education in recent decades. Although they were among the last states to add kindergarten for five year old children, they led the nation in establishing state preschool programs for four year old children, now in every southeastern state but Mississippi. According to the 2011 state preschool yearbook of the National Institute for Early Education Research, some of the highest percentages of state preschool enrollment of four year olds are in Florida (76 percent), Oklahoma (74 percent), Georgia (59 percent), and Texas (52 percent).

Throughout the U.S., state leadership for preschool has been much stronger than for kindergarten. Kindergarten, which means “children’s garden,” has become absorbed into the K-12 school system and focuses more on academic preparation than originally intended. In contrast, state preschool receives more guidance, generally from early childhood specialists in state departments of education. State guidance specifies programs’ structural characteristics, desirable teaching practices, and standards for children’s development. Like kindergarten, it must strike the best balance between growth and academic preparation.

Head Start is an alternative to state preschool. It is better funded than most state preschool programs — $7,838 per child in fiscal year 2011 compared to the state preschool average of $4,151. Head Start targets the poorest children for the most part whereas state preschool tends to have a broader definition of child eligibility, in a few states even open to all four year old children whose families choose to enroll them. Head Start has many regulations called performance standards. Since the end of 2011, Head Start has been engaged in a process of “designation renewal,” in which current grantees must meet seven conditions to keep their grant, or it becomes available for competitive bidding. These conditions require the agency to have appropriate goals, assess children’s development in terms of these goals, have teachers who are observed to perform well, and be in good standing with government regulatory agencies.

Another funding alternative is early childhood special education. Funded through the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, these programs serve children with special needs from birth to age three and in the preschool years. Children with special needs can also be “mainstreamed” in classrooms with children who do not have special needs.

Federal funding for child care is available through the Child Care and Development Fund. Parents who are employed or otherwise occupied can receive supplemental funding to pay caregivers. The funding is at a lower level than the other programs mentioned above, but can be used for after-school care and other child care arrangements.

In the Obama Administration, the U.S. Department of Education initiated grants to states called Race to the Top. It has had several variations, one called the Early Learning Challenge and one for school districts. Fourteen states around the country have received Early Learning Challenge funding, including Delaware, Maryland, and North Carolina in the southeast. These funds support coordination of existing early childhood programs, evaluation and rating of program quality, and increased access to high-quality programs, particularly for the most needy children.

On February 12, 2013, in his annual State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama proposed “working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America.” He cited research evidence of the long-term effects and return on investment of high-quality preschool programs. A mainstay of this research is the HighScope Perry Preschool Study, which I direct.

The following day a White House fact sheet amplified his remarks. It proposes “a new federal-state partnership to provide all low- and moderate-income four year old children with high-quality preschool, while also expanding these programs to reach additional children from middle-class families and incentivizing full-day kindergarten policies.” The proposal builds on the bipartisan state preschool movement of recent decades.

The administration calls for expansion of high-quality early learning opportunities prior to preschool, from birth to age three, through Early Head Start and high-quality child care programs. Head Start will continue to grow in this way, while state preschools will serve a larger share of four year old children.

The administration calls for extending and expanding evidence-based, voluntary home visiting by nurses and other professionals into the homes of new parents and their young children, adding to the $1.5 billion the administration has already made available for this purpose.

The administration clearly advocates quality in all these programs, with qualified, well-trained teachers; small class sizes; a sound curriculum; evaluation and review of programs; and comprehensive health and related services.

Politically, President Obama made this proposal during a difficult time for new proposals. Democrats and Republicans in Washington, D.C., are locked in a monumental struggle for the direction of the federal budget. President Obama’s early childhood education proposal must weather this storm in order to arrive at port. The coming months will tell how well it does.

Whatever its fate, two paths stretch out for the future of early childhood programs. One ignores what we have learned about the value of high-quality early childhood education and consigns our young children to custodial care by low-paid caregivers untrained in the practice of contributing to children’s development. The other path is to invest public dollars in our youngest children at high enough levels that we minimize our educational and social problems from before they begin. Following this path we will shoulder our responsibility for raising our youngest children and seize our best opportunity to stop the achievement gap before it starts and reduce the costs and pain of social problems before they occur.

High-quality early childhood education need not be a partisan issue. High-quality early childhood education does not expand the reach of government. It reduces its size by reducing costs of the criminal justice system and social services. Most importantly, it makes the education of our children better and helps give them the education and the future that we owe them.

Larry Schweinhart is President, HighScope Educational Research Foundation.
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