President Obama's vision -- outlined in his State of the Union address -- to help states expand prekindergarten to a broad swath of low- and moderate-income 4-year-olds would be realized under bipartisan legislation slated to be released today on Capitol Hill.
The measure has bipartisan backing -- it's being put forth by the top Democrats in both chambers on education issues, along with one Republican, Rep. Richard Hanna, R-N.Y. But it would cost more than $30 billion over its first five years and faces some major hurdles in a Congress consumed with trimming spending.
Still, the legislation, written by Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate education committee, and Rep. George Miller, the top Democrat on the House education committee, along with Hanna, is still worth a close look. If the political landscape ever changes, the bill could help inform a major remaking of the federal role in prekindergarten. Plus, this is the first significant, bipartisan, bicameral bill on prekindergarten in over a decade -- a pretty big deal all in itself.
And the bill could help gin-up further congressional action on early childhood education: Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the House education committee, issued a statement balking at the high pricetag of the bill, but said he'd like to hold a hearing on early childhood education soon.
And during an event officially unveiling the legislation, Hanna expressed optimism. "I may be the first Republican" to endorse this legislation, "but I won't be the last," he said. Hanna and Miller also urged budget negotiators to consider preschool as they work out a long-term spending agreement. Hanna called it a "priority."
Former Rep. Mike Castle, a Republican from Delaware who now does some work with preschool advocates, said that early childhood might have a better shot than any other education issue at getting bipartisan support. But Castle, who was known for his ability to reach across party lines, guessed that any final bill might not look exactly like the Harkin-Miller-Hanna proposal.
What does the bill do? Under the legislation, states that want to offer prekindergarten to low- and moderate-income 4-year-olds would get a major assist from the federal government, at least initially. They would be eligible to apply for formula funds that would be distributed to states based on their proportion of such children, whose families make roughly $47,000 a year or less.
• The feds wouldn't pick up the whole tab, though. States would have to pony up 10 percent of their own money to match the federal funds for two years. That would gradually increase to a 100 percent match by the eighth year. States could give the grants out to school districts (including charter districts), high-quality early-education providers, or consortia of providers. More money would be made available to states that provide preschool to half -- or more -- of eligible 4-year-olds.
• States that want to go further could also extend the program to children ages birth through 3 who come from low- and moderate-income families. And states could reserve up to 15 percent of their funding to help serve children birth through 3 whose families meet the income requirements.
• Prekindergarten programs funded under the bill would have to meet certain quality standards. For instance, they'd have to be full-day, and teachers would have to have a bachelor's degree and demonstrated knowledge of early-childhood education. That might be easier said than done, per this story.
How much will all this cost, and how are we going to pay for it? The House version of the measure authorizes $27 billion over the first five years, just for the state grant portion of the bill. Plus there's $750 million for grants to help states boost preschool quality and to provide extra money for Head Start. That's a pretty high price tag, even by federal standards, and the bill doesn't pinpoint a way to cover the cost. The Obama administration had suggested paying for the program through a tax on tobacco products—an idea that met with some pretty strong resistance from the tobacco lobby.
House and Senate aides who worked on the bill said they essentially wanted to get the policy out, and would work with folks on the budget and appropriations committees (which control the congressional purse strings) to find a way to pay for it. That's not going to be easy, given the broken budget process.
What are the big differences between this and the Obama plan?
There are several:
• The Obama administration's proposal would allow states to expand the program to cover the cost of full-day kindergarten. The House and Senate bills instead open the door to pumping more money to younger children from disadvantaged backgrounds. (infants to age 3).
But the change opens a potential area of concern, said Laura Bornfreund, a senior policy analyst at the New America Foundation's early-childhood initiative, who overall found much to like in the proposal. Because not all districts offer full-day kindergarten, it's possible under the bill that young children could move from a full-day, high-quality preschool program to a half-day kindergarten program, she explained.
Helen Blank, the director of child care and early learning at the National Women's Law Center, liked the direction of the bill. "It stretches the president's proposal in positive ways," she said.
• The Obama proposal relies on mandatory funding—meaning the funding would be outside of the regular, completely contentious appropriations process on Capitol Hill. But, under the congressional proposal, the money would be discretionary, meaning lawmakers would have to cough up the funds every year. That's a tough proposition in a tight-fisted Congress, and it could make the financing less predictable for states that might want to join the program.
• Congress would make the program somewhat cheaper for states in the long run than the administration would, by requiring states to kick in less of their own money during the ninth and 10th years in the program. This might entice more states to support the preschool expansion, which has yet to get a full-throated endorsement from a Republican governor. But it's also costlier for the feds overall.
Are there any differences between the House and Senate bills? Just one major one. The House education bill authorizes $1.4 billion for an increase to Early Head Start. (That's the same amount that's in the president's budget request.) The Senate bill (which, it's worth noting, doesn't have a GOP sponsor) goes farther, authorizing $4 billion for Early Head Start. But authorizations are just recommendations. They're not binding.
Can every state get the money? No. States would have to have early-learning standards, be able to link preschool data to K-12, and provide state-funded kindergarten, among other requirements. Plus, states don't have to sign on. They opt-in.
How many states meet these requirements? House and Senate aides couldn't provide a total -- and neither could U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan when he was asked the same question months ago about the administration's similar proposal. The idea, however, was to set a relatively low bar so that lots of states would be able to participate, House and Senate aides said.
What if states are interested, but their early-childhood education programs aren't up to snuff just yet? The bill would authorize a $750 million pot of money for states to improve their programs. States would have to kick in a 20 percent match to get the funds.
What else do Republicans have to say? Sen. Lamar Alexander, the top Republican on the Senate education committee, said that "almost everyone supports preschool education" but that the bill doesn't make effective use of the billions the feds already spend on early childhood education.
"This is Washington at its worst: a noble goal, a press conference taking credit, not much federal money, and too many federal mandates, sending the long-term bill to state and local taxpayers," he said.
And Harkin tried to find a GOP sponsor, presenting the bill to lawmakers, both off and on the education committee. No takers, but some Republican lawmakers are apparently cooking up their own preschool proposal.
For their part, GOP governors and chiefs haven't exactly been knocking themselves over to endorse the president's plan, in part because of the high match requirements in later years of the program. More in this story. But preschool is a popular policy this year, in both red and blue states.
What does the advocacy community think? Overall, advocates for early-childhood education, who have been pushing for universal prekindergarten since pretty much the dawn of time, acknowledge the obvious political hurdles, but are really psyched that the bill exists at all.
"I think it's an important bill," said Blank, who has been lobbying on early childhood for decades. "It would ensure that 4-year-olds who need a strong start would come to kindergarten ready to take on their early elementary years."
What's the sponsors' plan for moving the bill forward? The Senate education committee is going to hold a hearing on the bill early next year. And after that, there will be a markup (committee consideration). No word yet on floor action. The House education committee is controlled by Republicans, most of whom threw cold water on the president's proposal as soon as it was released, so don't hold your breath for quick action over there.
This is a reprint of an article that originally appeared at Education Week.