Plan to expand preschool for 4-year-olds is barely bipartisan, with one GOP co-sponsor

November 13, 2013

Months after President Obama proposed a new federal initiative that would expand preschool to every 4-year-old in the country, members of Congress unveiled legislation Wednesday morning that would accomplish it.

The measure was presented as bipartisan, although just one Republican, Rep. Richard L. Hanna (N.Y.), joined top Democrats in the House and Senate to craft the legislation. In addition to Hanna, the authors include Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate education committee, and Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.), the ranking member of the House education panel.

“Decades of research tell us that from infants and toddlers to preschoolers, early learning is the best investment we can make to prepare our children for a lifetime of success,” said Harkin, whose bill was endorsed by 10 Democratic senators and one Independent, Bernie Sanders (Vt.), but no Republicans.

“Today, 39 states and the District of Columbia offer state-funded early learning programs, but without stronger investments, millions of children will continue to go without access to these crucial programs” said Harkin, who plans hearings on the bill early next year. “No child should be denied this opportunity because of family income or where they live.”

The Republican who chairs the House education panel, Rep. John Kline (Minn.), is cool to the idea of creating a new program.

“We can all agree on the importance of ensuring children have the foundation necessary to succeed in school and in life,” Kline said in a statement Wednesday. “However, before investing in new federal early childhood initiatives, we should first examine opportunities to improve existing programs designed to help our nation’s most vulnerable children, such as Head Start and the Child Care and Development Block Grant.”

Kline said he will plan hearings not on the House version of the bill, but on the issue of early childhood education and ways to improve current offerings.

Advocates for early childhood education say it is politically difficult to win support for the programs because the dividends that come from preschool investment — higher rates of high school graduation and employment, lower rates of incarceration and teen pregnancy — don’t materialize until years later, way past the next election.

The legislation announced Wednesday would give federal aid to states that offer pre-kindergarten to 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families. States would have to contribute to the cost of the program, paying 10 percent of the federal amount in the first year and up to 50 percent of the federal amount by the eighth.

Unlike Head Start, which is run by the federal government, the preschool initiative would be run by the states. States would decide to give grants to public schools or to preschool providers, as long as they were “high quality.” Under the legislation, that is defined as a full-day program of small classes taught by educators who hold at least a bachelor’s degree.

To meet those quality standards, the bill would make $750 million available to states to improve their programs. Only states that provide kindergarten would be eligible to seek the grants, and they have to agree to add data from preschool to the data they collect for K-12.

The bill, which is estimated to cost more than $30 billion in the first five years, closely resembles a proposal pitched by Obama earlier this year. The president had suggested raising the tobacco tax to fund that plan, but the congressional version is mum regarding a funding source.

Obama has said that raising the tobacco tax would serve a dual purpose of generating $75 billion in federal money for preschool while discouraging people from smoking. His proposal also called for mandatory funding, which means that the dollars for preschool would be insulated from the annual budget wars on Capitol Hill. Republicans have shunned any tax increase.

Preschool education has become a hot policy topic around the country. From Democratic-controlled Massachusetts to Republican-led Michigan, governors have announced plans to expand preschool, especially for low-income children. The initiatives have drawn strong backing from business groups, which say more action is needed at the federal level.

In San Antonio, Mayor Julian Castro (D) pushed through a new pre-K program aimed at low-income families, financed by an eighth of a cent increase in the local sales tax. New York Mayor-elect Bill DeBlasio (D) wants to increase taxes on the city’s wealthiest residents to raise money for preschool and after-school programs.

Under Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), the District of Columbia has become a leader in universal preschool. Last year, 92 percent of the District’s 4-year-olds were enrolled in public pre-K, along with 69 percent of 3-year-olds.

As states expand preschool, the federal commitment to early childhood education has been shrinking, in part because of the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration. Head Start programs across the country eliminated services for 57,000 children in the current school year to balance budgets diminished by the federal sequester, slashing 1.3 million days from Head Start center calendars and laying off or reducing pay for more than 18,000 employees, according to federal officials.

Lyndsey Layton has been covering national education since 2011, writing about everything from parent trigger laws to poverty’s impact on education to the shifting politics of school reform.
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