Nobody questions the maxim that early childhood education can make a world of difference in how a person grows up. The evidence is almost incontrovertible. Disadvantaged children, in particular, are more likely stay in school, have careers, and enjoy higher wages and healthier lifestyles if they have access to good school before kindergarten.
Now here comes the 'but.' As much as we want to give these education opportunities to young people, we don't always do a good job of it. And we spend (some might say "waste") a lot of money in the effort. The investments are "fragmented," according to the Government Accountability Office, leaving some families with multiple options and others with little or nothing.
This was the difficulty highlighted by Republican education gurus in both the House and Senate last week as the two chambers' respective education committees held hearings on early education. House Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline, R-Minn., said early education efforts cost $13 billion annually for 45 plus programs that offer overlapping childhood schooling services. Head Start alone costs $8 billion, but some studies suggest little difference between the achievement levels of children who accessed it and those who did not.
Across the Capitol, ranking Republican on the Senate Education Committee Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Congress should implement full funding for one of his ideas, "Head Start Centers of Excellence," that allow states to pool funds and experiment with different ways of delivering the services. In other words, Alexander thinks the feds should back off and allow states to try to make the early education money stretch farther and accomplish more.
"Here is what we should not do, and that is to fall back into the familiar Washington pattern of noble intentions, a grand promise, lots of federal mandates and sending the bill to the states with disappointing results," Alexander said. One such useless "noble intention," he added, is President Obama's push to give quality pre-school education to all four-year-olds under 200 percent of the poverty level.
This is a familiar song among budget-conscious Republicans. We support the effort, they say, but we can't spend any more money on it, so we'll consolidate existing programs and give the states more freedom to experiment. The same dynamic is taking place with the Workforce Investment Act, a job training bill that is stuck in the Senate because it isn't clear a deal can be made with the sponsors of a House version.
These arguments are frustrating to Democrats, who would like nothing more than to give states the funding to put lots more kids in to pre-school. To them, consolidation just means cutting money from an already underfunded program. "What's that last kernel of evidence that's going to make you [Republicans] understand that this is important, that government should be doing it," asked Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the ranking Democrat on the House Education Committee.
Senate Education Committee Chairman Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, noted that 63 percent of respondents to an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll believe that ensuring access to pre-school was an absolute priority this year. (Emphasis mine.) Yet fewer than half of the pre-school children eligible for Head Start receive it. "Among infants and toddlers eligible for Early Head Start, less than 5 percent are served," he said.
How this all shakes out is unclear, although it's a safe bet that nothing dramatic will happen. Noble gestures are great, but Congress is simply trying to keep the playing field level for now. So far, so good. Lawmakers acknowledged the need for early education when they managed to reverse the cuts from last year's across-the-board budget sequester for two of the biggest early childhood education programs—the Community Services Development Block Grant and Head Start/Early Head Start. That trend will likely continue with this year's funding cycle.
Not all public programs are so lucky.
For our insiders: What is the appropriate federal role for early education? Should all children have access to it? Or is it really just for poor kids? When should early education begin? Is pre-K for four-year-olds the right goal? What are states' and school districts' responsibilities when it comes to pre-school? What about the private sector? Is it fair to point to the fragmentation of government programs in this arena? Or is that just a convenient excuse to oppose any attempt to grow the government's early education agenda?
(Note: This is a moderated blog on education issues. Comments are approved on a case-by-case basis. If you want to be a regular contributor, contact me.)
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