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At the Center of the No Child Left Behind Debate, a Push to Boost Early Childhood Education

By Carolyn Phenicie | November 8, 2015

Photo: Getty Images
Washington, D.C.
Democrats and early learning advocates are focused on protecting small gains for early childhood education included in the Senate’s No Child Left Behind rewrite as they work toward a final deal with Republicans often skeptical of a federal role in preschool programs.  
The Senate’s version of the bill would provide grants to help states and schools increase the quality of existing early childhood programs, target those programs to low- and middle-income families, and better coordinate the many existing streams of federal and state dollars for preschool programs.
Events in recent months, notably, the resignations of Education Secretary Arne Duncan and House Speaker John Boehner, make it far less likely a final bill can be negotiated by the end of the Obama administration. Duncan put the odds at 50/50 before the election of new speaker Paul Ryan.
The Senate’s top education committee Democrat, Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, negotiated an early education amendment with Sen. Johnny Isakson, Republican of Georgia, and it was included during committee consideration.
“I am proud that the Senate’s bipartisan bill to fix No Child Left Behind includes early learning grants to expand access to preschool programs, and I will continue to fight for stronger investments in early childhood education so more students can start kindergarten on strong footing,” Murray, a former preschool teacher, said in a statement. “Expanding access to preschool shouldn’t be a partisan issue, and I hope to continue to work across the aisle to expand access to quality preschool programs for our nation’s youngest learners.”
Preschool is critical for all children to give them the academic and social skills necessary to start kindergarten prepared to learn, but it is particularly crucial for children who grow up in poverty, whose parents may not have the time, education, or financial resources to provide the same kind of enriching pre-kindergarten experiences that wealthier families can provide.
Although the Obama administration and Democrats have made early childhood education a focus in the last few years, congressional Republicans have opposed plans for new federal preschool programs, arguing it is a matter better handled by state and local governments.
Protecting the Murray-Isakson provision is among the top priorities for Democrats, and the number one for early childhood education advocates as negotiations on the bill begin with the House.
Early childhood advocates are “feeling fairly positive” that the amendment will wind up in the final bill, said Sarah Rittling, national director of the First Five Years Fund. She cited the support from Murray and the Obama administration as well as Republicans’ recent willingness to address other, smaller early childhood education issues.
Congress last year approved an overhaul of the $2.4 billion Child Care and Development Block Grant Program, which provides financial assistance to poor families to pay for child care. The programs receiving the grants now have to meet health, safety and educational standards. Republicans in recent years have also agreed to funding increases for Head Start and other early childhood programs.   
Still, although preschool proponents got a modest win in the Senate bill, they weren’t able to use the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the formal name of No Child Left Behind, to push the type of large-scale program long sought by Democrats in Congress and the White House.
Sen. Bob Casey, Democrat of Pennsylvania, offered an amendment that largely reflected President Obama’s “Preschool for All” program that would help states provide preschool for all four-year-olds from low- and middle-income families. Democrats proposed paying for it by changing some tax deductions so that millionaires pay at least 30 percent in taxes.
Advocates were pleased with the big Senate vote in favor of that amendment – all but one Democrat, who didn’t vote, backed the proposal, though no Republicans supported it – but expected it would be difficult to include it in the bill.
“In terms of attaching it to ESEA, it was a big lift. But it was a good amendment to keep the conversation going, that there’s still more to be done, that ESEA alone isn’t going to get us where we need to be in getting us more access and more quality to kids,” Rittling said.
The No Child Left Behind reauthorization is getting a lot of attention because it’s a “very large bill that does need to get done and does include some new language that is really critical,” but preschool advocates have plenty of other federal outlets, as NCLB negotiations stretch into the holiday season.
Most immediately, advocates are watching the appropriations process and looking for at least a small funding boost for the Head Start program, which gets about $8.6 billion annually, and the child care block grants.
The administration, meanwhile, has focused on preserving the Preschool Development Grants, which are a smaller-scale version of the preschool for all program.
The Education department, in conjunction with the Department of Health and Human Services, gave out a second year of the grants in early October. “There’s a growing bipartisan understanding in states that we must expand educational opportunity, starting with our youngest learners. For the sake of our kids and our country, I hope that bipartisan consensus will make its way to Washington sooner rather than later,” Duncan said in a statement.
Congress authorized a continuing resolution that funds the government at last year’s levels through mid-December; a larger budget deal agreed to in late October sets the stage for a fresh appropriations deal for all education programs, including preschool.
The reauthorization of the Head Start program, which provides a host of services, including education, to low-income preschoolers and their families, is, like the rewrite of No Child Left Behind, overdue.
“There’s a couple of things that are pending,” Rittling said. “I don’t think we see our work as being done.”
Sen. Patty Murray photo by Getty Images
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