Federal Proposal Would Build on State Efforts

February 26, 2013

Steve BarnettPresident Obama’s call to action on early education is a watershed moment that has the potential to improve education for millions of American students. Ensuring all students have the opportunity to attend high-quality preschool, regardless of income and geography, is a key component of an effective education system that prepares students for success in school and society.

State-funded pre-K has grown substantially over the last decade to serve 28 percent of 4-year-olds, up from 14 percent in 2001. Yet, this is only part of the picture. As many as 40 percent are served by public programs when Head Start and preschool special education are counted, though the latter may consist of only a few hours of therapy a week. Over 80 percent are in some type of out of home arrangement including private programs and family home child care. Unfortunately, research now makes it clear that the quality of many of these arrangements as assessed by direct observation is far too low to promote educational opportunity. Some are so poor they may actually increase children’s risk of school failure. Head Start’s weaknesses have been noted by many as debate over this proposal has unfolded, but Head Start is far better than many of the private centers and day care homes children attend. NIEER has just released an in-depth look at what the research tells us about the outcomes of early education which can help clarify some confusion seen in media report.

That is why it is so important to understand that the President’s pre-K proposal will raise quality and educational effectiveness, not just increase the number of seats available.  And, it will do this by lifting up the entire field.  The models of successful pre-K for all already operate show the way. Oklahoma, New Jersey’s Abbott program, and West Virginia all integrate private providers and Head Start into state-funded pre-K.  What does this mean?  Head Start teachers nationally are paid barely more than pet sitters and dog walkers. This is Head Start’s Achilles heel. Teachers in private child care make even less.  To use the New Jersey example, when integrated into state pre-K these teachers were given the opportunity to go back to school and get stronger preparation, they were assigned teacher coaches who worked with them as partners to improve their teaching, and their salaries were doubled. Of course, this came with accountability for results, but the vast majority delivered. Teaching quality in all classrooms, private and public, was raised from poor/mediocre to good/excellent.

Planning for this reform process has already begun in most states through their state early learning advisory councils.  In addition, 35 states and the District of Columbia developed reform plans when they applied for funds to expand early education through the federal Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge in 2011. However, only nine states were awarded funds. These applications demonstrate a clear interest and capacity by state governments to partner with the federal government to start all children on the right path. States have never been better poised to prioritize early education and the federal government’s role is welcome support.

The White House preschool proposal has a few key words that are important in understanding how this would play out: “federal-state partnership” and “cost-sharing.” This isn’t the federal government signing a blank check to foot the entire bill for early education; it is limited support based on the number of low-income children in a state and tied to a small number of standards already adopted by many states. If other states do not want to raise quality, they do not have to participate. If they do participate, they will be in charge, not the federal government, which could list its requirements on a single page.  The list of states that we believe might qualify with little or no change to state policy includes not just Oklahoma and Georgia, but also Alabama, Alaska, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Washington, and West VirginiaMississippi is currently advancing legislation that would meet the test as well.

Once it is understood, the President’s pre-K plan should be endorsed by practically everyone. It supports equity and excellence in the pre-K policies advanced by governors of both parties. Both critics and supporters of Head Start should welcome it as Head Start reform that will strengthen that program and improve its effectiveness. Those who want to see more choice and competition should applaud federal support for state programs that incorporate private providers. To return to our New Jersey example, two-thirds of the children are served by private providers supported by local school districts responsible for ensuring quality through teacher coaching and supports to help children with special needs succeed in regular classes.

Given all of its advantages, the primary objection in Congress to the President’s proposal is likely to be that we can’t afford new spending when deficits loom so large. Yet, this is fundamentally a pro-growth, deficit reduction proposal. The biggest returns to this investment will kick in years down the road when the deficit is projected to become a more serious problem. And, it addresses root causes of the deficit–slow growth and rising costs of government including health care costs. Quality pre-K will enhance productivity to increase growth, decrease the costs of school failure and crime, and reduce smoking and other risky behaviors that harm health. Sure, it’s just one small contribution to deficit reduction, but a $50 billion investment over 10 years could contribute a few hundred million dollars to deficit reduction.

Rejecting the President’s pre-K plan is the far more costly alternative. We cannot afford to leave so many children behind with more than a third not ready to succeed at kindergarten entry. We cannot afford the lost growth and increased costs to government when they subsequently fail. We cannot afford failing to recognize that this is not just a problem for the 45 percent of our children who live below 200 percent of poverty, but for the vast majority of families. Deficit hawks, education reformers, and civil rights activists should unite to lead the charge for this proposal in Congress.  States–red and blue–have already shown the way forward. Congress should follow.

– Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER

This entry is cross-posted to The National Journal and is in response to the post “Holy Preschool, Batman” by Fawn Johnson.

Reactions to the President’s Pre-K Speech and Proposal

February 15, 2013
Child listening to book


The early childhood education (ECE) field is a-twitter with responses following President Obama’s announcement of federal investments in preschool for all during his State of the Union address on Tuesday night. Many have questions about how administration’s plan will approach preschool education. Will programs truly be of high quality? Will programs strike a balance between academics and play? What about programs for children younger than age 4? NIEER offered recommendations on the key components of a federal plan last week, but the White House plan is still surrounded by many more questions.

Answers to some of those questions may not be found for a while, but more details on the administration’s early education proposal were revealed this week. Early Thursday morning, the White House released a look at the preschool plan with this fact sheet. Later that day, President Obama made pre-K the focal point of a speech given in Decatur, Georgia.  One thing that was apparent from the speech is that he has an impressive knowledge of the research and what high-quality really means for early care and education; video of that speech as well as a transcript are now available from the White House. Speaking on the return on investment of preschool education, President Obama said, “If you are looking for a good bang for your educational buck, this is it right here.” While in Decatur, the President also spent some time learning with students in a pre-K classroom.

Following the speech, Dr. Barnett released a statement, in which he noted that “early education can have substantive short- and long-term effects on cognitive and social-emotional development, as well as on school achievement, while reducing inequality, antisocial behavior, and even crime. So how can we choose not invest in it?”  As the President did in his speech, it is important to attend to all of the research and not just studies that might support one view or another.  This has not always been the case in responding to the proposed plan, particularly with some of the most negative responses.

For example, the Head Start Impact Study has been cited as evidence that pre-K doesn’t work.  Yet, that study does not show that Head Start has no positive impacts, much less that high-quality preschool generally isn’t effective.  The naysayers fail to acknowledge that Head Start teachers are paid about half what public school teachers earn, which is a serious impediment to hiring and retaining the best teachers.  Nor do they mention the more positive research findings on Head Start from other studies or acknowledge that some Head Start centers are more effective than others.

Of course, the right way to address the question of what this proposal might accomplish is to ask what the research as a whole finds (and not just research here in the U.S.).  This much is clear:  on average there are substantial long-term effects; effects are larger if programs are well-designed to produce high-quality teaching; children from middle-income families benefit also if the programs are of high quality.   

There are still plenty more details that will need to be revealed over the coming weeks as this proposal moves forward. For now, we at NIEER are pleased to see the conversation and debate on educating our youngest learners elevated to the national level.

– W. Steven Barnett, Director, NIEER

– Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER

Early Education in the State of the Union Spotlight

February 12, 2013

Rumors have been swirling that President Obama would address early childhood education in State of the Union speech, but there was still a thrill for early education advocates in hearing the President’s words rings out from the podium tonight. The full details of his early education plan will be revealed in coming days but inclusion in the State of the Union makes clear the White House has elevated early learning to a national priority. The emphasis on return on investment was particularly gratifying as NIEER’s Steven Barnett, working with Larry Schweinhart and others on David Weikart’s Perry Preschool study, noted the high returns to preschool with the $7 returned to $1 invested figure first reported 20 years ago.

In human terms, it is difficult to overstate the benefits of high-quality early education programs. Children who are enrolled in these programs are better prepared for school, which is particularly important at a time when 40 percent of kindergarteners are not ready to be in the classroom. Schools benefit from students coming into class academically and socially prepared to learn, resulting in reduction in grade retention and special education services. Families are better able to work when they know their children are in a safe and educational environment while benefiting from socializing with children their own age. Millions more Americans who may not even have preschool-age children benefit from long-term societal benefits — pre-K has been found to reduce participants’ future reliance on welfare and likeliness of being imprisoned, not to mention the fact that any of the 3-year-olds playing doctor in the dress-up corner today could be your surgeon twenty years from now. Opponents may argue that the proposal shared tonight could come with a considerable price tag. But $100 million invested in early education over the next decade could return as much as $1 trillion in benefits to the nation. And that is present value – or the equivalent value today – not a simple sum of benefits over time, which is much larger. That is an investment well worth making.

Preschoolers laughing


For too long, high-quality early education has been out of reach for most low- and middle-income Americans. As we noted last week, “Among children from low-income families, more than 1 in 3 attends no preschool program at age 4 and most do not attend at age 3. For those lucky enough to attend a state-funded program, real spending per child declined during the Great Recession, sapping quality. Children in higher income families have better access to programs, but those are not necessarily of high quality.” The President’s plan to seeks to ensure that all 4-year-olds can access quality programs, which will put children on an early path to success. Early childhood education can help all children at risk of school failure and close much of the achievement gap that plagues American education. This proposal improves opportunity for everyone, offering a hand up to lower and middle-income families that will help them reach the American dream.

Like all education programs, this new early education plan will work only with a strong commitment to quality. This means ensuring that all classrooms have highly qualified teachers, both through initial preparation and ongoing professional development. And, preschool educators must be paid on the same scale as K-12 teachers. Until all early educators are valued as highly as their higher grade counterparts, quality will be difficult to ensure.  Some states have achieved more on this front than others, and it is hoped this new plan will flexibly help all states bring their current systems up to high quality, including teacher qualifications, while expanding access. States like Alabama, with high quality but little access, have very different assistance needs than states like Florida, with lots of children enrolled but low quality standards.

Moving this proposal from Capitol Hill into classrooms will require that Congress move beyond partisan politics in the interest of America’s children.  This proposal is in line with the traditional role of the federal government in education: ensuring that the most disadvantaged students and states are given an equal opportunity.   If there is any doubt that states are interested in pursuing these collaborative partnerships with the federal government, consider that thirty-five states and the District of Columbia applied for Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge funds in 2011. In the end, pre-K is not a “red” or “blue” issue, a fact highlighted by the Obama administration’s plan to visit an early learning center in Georgia, a red state with a historically strong, large-scale program that has been embraced by politicians and parents alike. Oklahoma is a another leader in state-funded early childhood education, and early educator Susan Bumgardner, a 2013 nominee for Oklahoma City Public Schools Teacher of the Year award, was a special guest of the first family this evening. Early education efforts in the United States present a bipartisan state commitment to doing what is best for the nation’s children.  Federal leaders should follow in the footsteps of the folks back home.

We applaud President Obama for introducing a vision tonight of what early education can do for millions of the nation’s children and families. In the coming days and weeks, we will be eagerly following the details of this proposal, hoping to see a pre-K plan move through Congress that supports high-quality early education for families and states most in need of expanded opportunities. America’s children deserve nothing less.

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER

– W. Steven Barnett, Director, NIEER

– Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER

Principles for New Federal Early Education Policy Initiatives

February 8, 2013

Anticipation is building that President Obama will propose a significant new investment in early education in his State of the Union address. There are many big issues to be addressed, and young children always seem to be considered a small issue so it would make a real statement if the President chose to mention them.  There are two good reasons to do so.  First, new investments in young children make sense from a purely economic perspective—high-quality early education increases long-term productivity and economic growth and reduces inequality.  Second, this is a political winner.  The states leading the way on access to quality pre-K are a highly bi-partisan mix—New Jersey, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Maryland, Georgia, and West Virginia. Two of the newest high-quality start-ups are Rhode Island and Alaska.  When Americans put their children’s future first, that stubborn partisan divide seems to disappear.  And, as the cost is quite modest that offers hope a well-designed plan might actually make it through Congress.

Such a plan should address two significant shortcomings in our current situation. Many children still have no access at all to preschool education. Among children from low-income families, more than 1 in 3 attends no preschool program at age 4 and most do not attend at age 3. For those lucky enough to attend a state-funded program, real spending per child declined during the Great Recession, sapping quality. Children in higher income families have better access to programs, but those are not necessarily of high quality. In fact a Rand study of quality in California revealed that access to high-quality preschool is a big problem for middle- and upper-income families who do not qualify for income-tested public programs.

Preschool classroom


Having studied preschool education programs closely, we propose the following principles for new proposed federal investments in early learning:

  • Put child development first. America does not need more poor quality child care; it needs serious investment in high-quality education that also recognizes the child care needs of parents.
  • Offer quality preschool education to all children regardless of family income.  Every child is important.  Children from middle- and higher-income families are at lower risk of school failure and other problems, but they fail to succeed at a rate that is far too high. In the interests of equity, offer a higher match for children from low-income families.
  • Prepare and pay all teachers well, including those in Head Start. High-quality education requires excellent teachers, which in turn requires adequate pay and preparation. Teacher preparation does not end with college graduation, so federal matching funds should be contingent on states putting into place continuous improvement processes that focus on learning and teaching.
  • Make public preschool education free to all. Public education benefits everyone, and we should all pay for it through taxes.  Better off families can be expected to pay for additional hours provided for child care purposes beyond the school day.  Create sustainable early education finance systems.  States should be encouraged to support early education through school funding formulas that guarantee steady funding equivalent to that provided to K-12 students.
  • Begin with age 4 as this is the low-hanging fruit, but don’t forget about younger children.  Access to early education drops dramatically at age 3, and every age is important.  Nevertheless, we must remember that most of 4-year-olds do not yet attend a high-quality pre-K.
  • Provide incentives to all states to move forward, from those that have no state-funded pre-K programs at all to others that serve all 4-year-olds.
  • Support research to design more effective approaches to early education. The federal government is ideally positioned to support research and development through Early Head Start and Head Start.  Permitted the flexibility, these federal programs can be the nation’s engineers of early education excellence rather than Gullivers tied down by myriad strands of Lilliputian regulation.

If these principles guide a new federal plan, we believe they would lead to smart new investments in early learning that everyone can get behind.

– W. Steven Barnett, Director, NIEER

– Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER

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