Investing for Today and Tomorrow: Early Learning in the Federal FY 2013 Budget Proposal

February 15, 2012

Starting the week on an exciting note for elected officials, advocates, and policy wonks, President Obama released his proposed budget for fiscal year 2013 on Monday morning. Education was a clear priority throughout the press conference at Northern Virginia Community College in Annandale, Virginia, particularly on preparing students for 21st century jobs by focusing on career and technical skills. As readers of this blog can attest, early education is an important building block in preparing students for a life of learning and earning.

Details of the budget are still being fleshed out, but there seems to be good news for early education in the White House’s proposal, as outlined below.

Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) proposed budget:

  • Department-wide discretionary budget of $76.4 billion, a $0.3 billion increase over the FY2012 level.
  • Head Start and Early Head Start: Set to receive more than $8 billion to serve about 962,000 children and families, which would maintain the enrollment expansion seen in the 2009-2010 program year. The proposal acknowledges that it will support the implementation of the new Head Start re-competition regulations.
  • Child care subsidies:  Additional $7 billion over 10 years to support child care subsidies for low-income children.
  • Child Care Development Block Grant: Additional $300 million to improve the quality of child care facilities.

Department of Education proposed budget:

  • Department-wide discretionary budget of $69.8 billion, a $1.7 billion increase over FY2012 level.
  • Race to the Top (RTT): $850 million for another round.  According to a Department of Education press release, a “significant portion” of these funds would be allocated for an expansion for the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge, which would continue under the joint tutelage of the Departments of Education and HHS.
  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): $472.7 million in Grants for Infants and Families, to provide early intervention services to children birth through age 2 with disabilities and $372.6 million for IDEA Preschool Grants for children ages 3 through 5 with disabilities.
  • Promise Neighborhoods: Proposed increase of $100 million for this competitive grant program that seeks to help high-need communities develop cooperative strategies to improve outcomes for children through both educational reforms and life outside the classroom. Past winners have focused energies specifically on early education as a tool.
  • Investing in Innovation Fund (i3): Requests $150 million for the Investing in Innovation Fund (i3) to build on three previous i3 competitions. The Department’s budget summary only goes so far as to suggest that priority “could be given to projects proposing to improve early learning outcomes.”
  • Institute for Education Sciences (IES):  $30 million in new research and development grants for early learning and elementary, secondary, and postsecondary education.

In addition, the National Women’s Law Center has information on additional federal programs in the FY13 proposal that support families with young children, including the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit. Of course, not all child care funding goes to children under 5 (though most does) and early education will only be a modest fraction of such high-profile initiatives such as i3, Promise Neighborhoods, and RTT.

Laura Bornfreund, Maggie Severns, and Clare McCann at Early Ed Watch compiled the helpful table below to track changes since FY2011 in some key programs used for early education.


As noted by the New America Foundation’s Key Questions on the Obama Administration’s 2013 Education Budget Request, there are still a number of questions surrounding the place of early education in this budget, including whether the portion of RTT funds earmarked for early learning would be distributed at the state level or district level. They also note that the budget proposal encourages districts to redesign school schedules to better serve students through the 21st Century Community Learning program, though it is unclear so far whether states will be encouraged to apply this to the early grades, such as extending half-day kindergarten into full-day services.

It’s worth noting that a presidential budget proposal is, according to Birth to Thrive, just “the first move in a high-stakes game that will be complicated this year by presidential and congressional politics.” Considering the sharp partisan divisions seen in recent legislative battles, the pressure of the Budget Control Act to cut spending by $900 billion over 10 years, and the high-profile politics of an election year, it is hard to say exactly how much of this proposal will ever see funding. The great strength of the budget proposal, though, is to allow the president to lay out his priorities in greater detail than any speech or campaign ad could. Early education is clearly an administration priority, though perhaps not as high a priority as we would like.  All of us concerned about the future of America’s youngest learners must ensure that elected officials remember that high-quality early education programs are a good economic investment both short-term and in the future.

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER

The Pre-K Debates: What the Research Says About Teacher Quality

February 10, 2012

The body of research on teacher quality is, if nothing else, a mixed bag, in terms of both quality and approach. Studies of the effects of preschool education levels have employed techniques ranging from simple correlations to complex statistical analyses that seek to account for the complexities of interrelated policies and practices that affect teaching and learning. Given just how complex policy and practice are, it may be that the simple correlations are just as informative for policy purposes, but neither approach is particularly satisfactory.  Controlled randomized trials that look at teacher quality might get us farther, but even these may not tell us what we really want to know, and they are few and far between in any case.  Little wonder, then, that some studies find that teachers with higher levels of education have stronger effects on children’s learning while others do not. A 2007 NIEER quantitative summary (meta-analysis) of the literature found a modest positive effect of teachers with a bachelor’s degree compared to those with less education. A few studies in that analysis deserve extra attention because they have obvious strengths:

1. The Cost, Quality and Outcomes Study of child care found that higher levels of teacher education and pay were associated with higher quality as measured by structured observations, and children’s cognitive test scores. A reanalysis that controlled for location and center found no differences between teachers with bachelor’s degrees and those with associate’s degrees or high school diplomas. However, the reanalysis fails to take into account that programs basically hire all their teachers under the same budget constraint, that teachers within a center are not independent performers, and that centers like to assign difficult-to-teach kids to better teachers.

2. The National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) study of early care and education has an advantage over most studies because it includes measures of education in the home, thereby more completely modeling the processes that contribute to children’s learning and development. And, it does so over multiple years and not just a few months. Several NICHD studies have found that teacher education contributes to children’s learning and development.

3. Two studies that found no effects of teacher education on children’s learning are a University of Nebraska study of child care centers in four Midwest states and a University of North Carolina study using data from the National Center for Early Development and Learning (NCEDL) Multi-State Study of Pre-K. The latter involved more than 230 classrooms and 800 children. While both have relatively large samples, nether takes into account teacher assignment, apparently assuming that it is random and they do not measure home learning processes. In the Nebraska study, only about seven teachers out of the hundreds interviewed had salaries above $30,000.

To my mind, the most informative evidence comes from real policy changes such as when the New Jersey Supreme Court ordered high-quality preschool provided to all children in 31 low-income school districts. This “natural experiment” was implemented in a public system wherein most children were served by private providers under contract to the districts. Teachers lacking the necessary credentials received scholarships to attend more schooling so they could meet the new standard of a bachelor’s degree and early childhood certification. Salaries were raised to public school levels.  Teachers received coaching on a regular basis. It comes as no surprise to many involved in this dramatic, albeit painful, transition that the quality of teaching as measured by direct observation was transformed, changing from poor-mediocre to good-excellent.

Of course, we can’t pinpoint teacher qualifications as the sole source of success in New Jersey, and I wouldn’t.  Raising qualifications requirements without raising pay from its typically abysmal level is a recipe for disaster.  Honestly, would the field really be debating whether preschool teachers needed to be well-educated if wages were not at issue?  In addition, coaching and a continuous improvement process are certainly important, but it would be equally misguided to conclude that specialized training and professional development alone could produce quality teaching over the long-run with low wages and poorly educated teachers.

Education research rarely provides a basis for certainty and this is particularly true of studies looking at teacher effectiveness where so many variables matter. If policymakers want greater certainty than the existing evidence provides, different sorts of studies will be needed that are based on real policy changes. In the meantime, leading experts in the field provide us with well-reasoned arguments for and sometimes against requiring higher levels of education for preschool teachers than is currently the case in most classrooms across the nation. Their arguments are well represented in The Pre-K Debates, a new book edited by Ed Zigler and Walter Gilliam at Yale and me.  If nothing else, it is always interesting to see university professors argue that their students don’t learn anything useful or that minority students can’t make it in higher education. I’m always happy to put forward Rutgers University as a counterexample.

– Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER

Note: This post is part of a series discussing issues of contention from The Pre-K Debates. For my analysis of universal preschool’s role in economic mobility, see this earlier post in the series.

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