Advocacy Update: NAESP Urges Congress to Consider Bipartisan Early Childhood Legislation

By Kelly D. Pollitt
November 2013, Volume 37, Issue 3

NAESP has joined advocates from the early childhood education community to support legislation that will significantly expand the federal investment in early learning programs.

The bill, The Strong Start for America’s Children Act of 2013, was unveiled this week by Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, Tom Harkin (D-IA), together with the Ranking Member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, George Miller (R-CA). The House version of the legislation is also originally cosponsored by Representative Richard Hanna (R-NY).

About the Legislation

The bipartisan legislation is the incarnation of President Obama’s early learning agenda, cited as a priority during the State of the Union address in January and later proposed in the Fiscal Year 2014 budget request to Congress. The bill authorizes a ten-year program with an increasing state contribution, from 10 percent of the federal amount in the first year to an equal share of the federal amount by the tenth year. The new federal-state partnership would provide access to high-quality prekindergarten programs for children from families earning at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level or families with income around $47,000 a year or less. The program requires states to fund programs for children from families above this poverty threshold when receiving federal assistance.

Currently, 39 states and the District of Columbia offer state-funded pre-kindergarten programs and this bill intends to provide funds to help all states provide universal programs. To be eligible for funds, states must have or plan to establish early childhood education standards aligned to developmentally-appropriate K-12 standards. The standards must address cultural and linguistic practices that are appropriate to early childhood learning with domains covering:

  • school readiness;
  • physical well-being;
  • motor skill development;
  • social-emotional learning;
  • literacy and language development;
  • approaches to learning;
  • cognition/general knowledge; and
  • early math and scientific development.

In addition, states must have the ability to link preschool data to K-12 systems for children in federally-funded early childhood education programs through a state-assigned student identifier number; have established a state-level Early Childhood Education and Care Council; and provide state-funded kindergarten. States that do not meet these requirements will have an opportunity to apply for prekindergarten formula grants (called Prekindergarten Development Grants), which would help states establish prekindergarten programs. In addition, the legislation would establish partnerships between Early Head Start programs and child care providers to help child care centers and in-home providers improve the quality of coordinated, comprehensive services for infants and toddlers through age three.

Passage of the Bill Uncertain
While the legislation was written and introduced with bipartisan support in Congress, the price tag attached to the bill is likely to be problematic, particularly for Republicans in the House, in light of the continued federal budget challenges. The House version of the measure authorizes $27 billion over the first five years, just for the state grant portion of the bill. An additional $750 million would be provided for grants to help states boost preschool quality and to provide support for Head Start—with no offset or plan to fund the costs.

In addition, many Republicans in Congress view early childhood education as primarily a state responsibility. While the Ranking Member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, George Miller (D-CA) and the lead Republican sponsor, Representative Richard Hanna (R-NY) are committed to the cause, it is difficult to see how the chamber will come together to resolve funding issues. The original proposal put forward by the Obama administration suggested paying for the program through a tax on tobacco products—an idea that met with strong resistance from the tobacco lobby.

As the national representative of the nation’s elementary and middle level principals, NAESP will continue to advocate in support of the legislation. This federal investment is needed to bolster state systems in early learning. Student success depends on systems and schools providing a seamless continuum of learning for children from age three to grade three, or effective P-3 alignment. Elementary principals know that providing a continuum of developmental and cognitive support for all children’s instruction and learning in the early grades is necessary to realize the full potential of these investments.

Kelly D. Pollitt is Associate Executive Director for Policy, Public Affairs, and Special Projects at NAESP.

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