Rittling: How New ESSA Preschool Development Grants Will Help States Build a Foundation of Success for Our Littlest Learners

As students across the U.S. return to school, it’s important to remember that learning begins long before a child sets foot inside a kindergarten classroom.

It is widely understood that high-quality early childhood education from birth through age 5 lays the foundation for school readiness, cognitive development, and strong social skills. This awareness, coupled with the fact that the cost of quality care is rapidly outpacing most other family expenses, has helped spur policymakers at all levels of government to create and expand early learning opportunities.

Federal investments have helped fund and strengthen our country’s education system for decades — and the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act more fully incorporates state and local efforts to expand early childhood education and the connections that exist between early learning and the K-12 system. It also establishes a new birth-through-5 program, the Preschool Development Grants program, meant to empower states to identify ways to more effectively and efficiently make advances in these areas.

Before ESSA, Congress appropriated funding for a different program — known as legacy grants — to 18 states beginning in fiscal year 2014. These provided much-needed support for development and expansion of access to high-quality pre-K for 4-year-olds from low-income backgrounds. But the legacy grants were not formally authorized in statute.

By incorporating the new Preschool Development Grant program into ESSA, Congress affirmed the importance of early learning, beginning at birth, to the law’s goals of advancing equal access to education and the central role of states in leading early childhood coordination, quality, and access efforts. It is also a small but mighty step by the government to support states’ unique and varied early childhood efforts by building upon current federal, state, and local early care and learning investments, as well as increase connections between early learning and K-12 systems within states.

It’s exactly what Congress should be asking itself when looking at critical reauthorizations — how to be a partner and instigate progress toward unmet needs.

Through their competitive structure, the new grants will put states and communities in the driver’s seat when it comes to leveraging federal, state, and local investments in early learning and care to improve options for parents and children. The collaboration fostered by the grants will ensure resources are used effectively and encourage the sharing of best practices among early learning providers, ultimately leading to an improved continuum of care for young learners.

For decades, bipartisan federal programs like Head Start, Early Head Start, and child care and development block grants have played a crucial role in allowing children from low-income families to learn and grow in high-quality environments that help them overcome the effects of poverty.

Improving the quality of, and access to, early childhood education programs is critical to ensuring every child develops the skills needed for success in life. Thanks to the Preschool Development Grants program and other important investments being made at the federal, state, and community levels, we are making progress toward ensuring that for years to come, more young learners will be prepared to learn when they walk into a classroom for the first time.

Sarah Rittling is executive director of the First Five Years Fund.

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