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Is a New Federal Early Learning Initiative Duplicative?

Why We Need the Strong Start for America’s Children Act

SOURCE: AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

President Barack Obama sits with Emily Hare as she completes her spelling lessons during his visit to a preschool classroom at Powell Elementary School in the Petworth neighborhood of Washington, Tuesday, March 4, 2014.

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Pending legislation in Congress to expand access to preschool has led some to question whether a new federal investment in early childhood education would be duplicative of existing programs. For many reasons, the answer to this question is a resounding no. Current investments are not sufficient to provide access to high-quality early learning programs for low-income children. Less than one-third of low-income children currently have access to publicly funded or publicly subsidized child care and preschool programs. While the Strong Start for America’s Children Act would improve access to high-quality programs if fully funded, it would still leave 60 percent of low-income children under age 5 without access to any public program.

The myth of the 45 early childhood programs

A 2012 Government Accountability Office, or GAO, report concluded that there are 45 federal early learning and child care programs, 12 of which the GAO claims directly fund slots in early learning or child care programs. Of these 12 programs, only four provide substantial funds to serve children: special education preschool grants, also known as Part B of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA; Head Start; the Child Care and Development Block Grant, or CCDBG; and Child Care Mandatory and Matching Funds. The latter two programs operate as a single program, known as the Child Care and Development Fund. IDEA Part B serves children with special needs from ages 3 to 21 and provides preschool services to an estimated 430,000 children.

The remaining eight programs fall into one of three categories:

  • Small programs that are targeted to a specific population with a particular need. These are not designed to serve children and families on a large scale and are tailored to meet the needs of a specific population.
  • Larger programs that support early childhood but are not specifically designed to support access to early childhood programs over the long term.
  • Programs that have expired or are for a purpose other than early childhood. This includes one program that is no longer in existence and a program that does not serve young children.

A summary of these programs is provided in Table 1.

table1

The other 33 programs include child care or early learning as a permissible use of funds, but in most cases, only a small portion of these funds go to early childhood programs. Local education agencies, for example, may use Title I funds for early childhood programs, but only about 3 percent of total obligations actually support preschool. Similarly, the Appalachian Regional Commission funds a broad array of education, social service, and economic development programs in distressed communities. But of the 400 programs funded across 13 states, only four are targeted to early learning for a total of less than $800,000 in spending—far short of the $73 million that GAO reports for the total program funding level.

Other programs provide a supplemental service that enhances early learning programs but do not fund access to such programs. The Child and Adult Care Food Program, or CACFP, for instance, reimburses providers for nutritious meals and snacks if they meet the eligibility criteria, but the program does not actually pay for access to early childhood programs. Likewise, the Technology and Media Services for Individuals with Disabilities program provides equipment to make the classroom more accessible to children with disabilities, including preschoolers, but it does not directly fund access to preschool programs.

Two programs—Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, and the Social Services Block Grant, or SSBG—provide substantial funding for child care, but the amount is still a small portion of the total grant. TANF provided $1.5 billion for child care in 2012—9 percent of total TANF funding—and most of these funds were transferred to CCDBG. States spend an additional $391 million from the Social Services Block Grant on child care—14 percent of total SSGB funds.

While there is certainly room for better coordination across programs, and potentially even opportunities for streamlining, the fact is that current federal investments are insufficient to reach a sizable portion of low-income children. Existing investments number just four—Head Start; CCDBG, both the mandatory and discretionary programs; and IDEA Part B—and current funding is insufficient to reach a majority of eligible children.

Existing investments are underfunded

The federal government really has only two major investments in early childhood care and education: the Head Start program and CCDBG. Head Start began in the 1960s and provides early learning and comprehensive services for young children and their families. The federal government provides $8 billion annually to serve 1 million children. CCDBG traces its origins to the 1996 Welfare Reform Act and provides child care for low-income children so that their parents may work or attend job training or education programs. Federal and state expenditures totaled $7.5 billion in 2012 and provided services for 1.5 million children.

In both programs, the need for services far outpaces federal resources. In the Head Start preschool program, which services children ages 3 and 4, only half of eligible children have access to the program. Many programs have waiting lists and cannot serve all families who want the program. The Early Head Start program, which services infants and toddlers, reaches only 4 percent of eligible children. CCDBG serves only a quarter of those eligible, and 19 states had waiting lists or frozen intake as of February 2013. Many families churn in and out of the child care subsidy system; the average length of time with a child care subsidy is three to seven months. A recent study found that the number of children served by CCDBG in 2012 fell to the lowest level since 1998, and more than 260,000 children have lost access to child care subsidies since 2006.

State preschool programs reach 28 percent of 4-year-olds and 4 percent of 3-year-olds. The per-child spending rate is quite low; it averaged $3,841 in 2012, down $1,100 since 2001. Many states have set ambitious goals when it comes to expanding access to preschool, but only a handful have been able to reach most preschool-aged children.

Altogether, existing federal and state programs have the capacity to reach less than one-third of low-income children under age 5. (see Table 2 in PDF) Of the 31 percent of children enrolled in federal- or state-funded early childhood programs, Head Start serves 8 percent, state-funded preschool programs serve 12 percent, CCDBG serves 7 percent, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act serves 4 percent. While it appears that state-funded preschool programs have the largest capacity, it is important to note that high-income children also occupy preschool slots in states with universal preschool, such as Oklahoma, Georgia, and Florida. This might overestimate the number of low-income children enrolled in preschool.

A large federal investment to fund the Strong Start Act would not be duplicative of existing programs. Rather, it will fill major gaps in existing spending on early childhood programs at the state and federal level.

Some existing programs are not high quality

Even when children and families have access to existing state and federal early learning programs, they do not necessarily have access to high-quality programs. CCDBG has few standards at the federal level, and, when implemented at the state-level, most CCDBG-funded child care programs only need to meet state child care licensing standards, which are designed to ensure minimal health and safety standards rather than prepare children for school. Pending legislation in the U.S. Congress and regulations proposed by the Obama administration would set a floor on health and safety but still do very little to ensure a nurturing and enriching environment for children.

Quality is significantly better in Head Start and state preschool programs. At least 40 states have developed preschool programs on their own accord, funded primarily by state dollars. They differ in their approach, but most serve 4-year-old children from low-income families or with other risk factors and, similar to Head Start, are designed to support children’s learning and prepare them for school. However, both Head Start and state preschool programs fall short of the high-quality standards proposed in the Strong Start for America’s Children Act. The Head Start program comes very close, but only two-thirds of teachers nationally had a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education or a related field in 2013. The quality of Head Start programs varies across the country, and in recognition of this, low-performing Head Start programs are now required to compete for their grants rather than receive an automatic renewal. This allows other early childhood providers in the community to apply for Head Start funds and incentivizes improvement across the board.

Many state preschool programs also lack quality. As the per-child allocation declines in many states, so too does the quality. The National Institute for Early Education Research, or NIEER, established 10 benchmarks to measure quality in state preschool programs. These benchmarks roughly align with the quality standards outlined in the Strong Start for America’s Children Act. Only five states had a preschool program meet all of the benchmarks. More than half a million children, or 42 percent of nationwide enrollment, were served in programs that met fewer than half of the quality benchmarks. Florida—which reaches 79 percent of 4-year-olds, more than any other state—met just three of the benchmarks.

The Strong Start Act would improve quality in state preschool programs by putting evidence-based standards in place and providing states with assistance to improve quality in existing programs. Teachers would be required to have a bachelor’s degree and training or demonstrated competency in early childhood education. They would also be paid at the same rates as K-12 teachers, reducing turnover and improving retention. Small class sizes, a research-based curriculum, and the provision of comprehensive services to families would also be part of the program. Families would also have more options when it comes to selecting a program for their child and would be able to select a higher-quality arrangement if they are dissatisfied with the quality provided in some other federal or state programs.

Existing programs do not always meet the needs of low-income, working families

Existing state and federal programs do not always cover a full working day for low-income families, necessitating the layering of multiple programs in order to meet children’s and parents’ needs. Thus, it is possible for a child to be enrolled in multiple programs without “double-dipping.” Only 9 percent of Head Start and Early Head Start slots are full-day and year-round. Likewise, preschool programs vary in their length. Some are part-day and others operate for the full school day. New Jersey’s Abbott preschool program is a rarity in that children receive a 10-hour preschool day to meet the needs of working parents.

As a result, children might need to be enrolled in more than one program. For example, a child might attend a Head Start program for six hours, then receive a child care subsidy for the remaining hours of the day while the parent is at work. In 2013, 5 percent of children enrolled in Head Start also received a child care subsidy.

Some early childhood programs have blended funding from multiple federal and state sources to fund high-quality early learning programs. District of Columbia Public Schools, for example, blends federal Head Start funding with local funds to serve 5,000 children with high-quality preschool for the full school day. The local funds pay for teachers, staff, and infrastructure, and the Head Start funds provide comprehensive services for families and additional professional development and training for teachers.

The Strong Start for America’s Children Act will expand access to high-quality programs

The Strong Start Act would significantly improve access to early education for low-income children. Not only will it increase the number of children served, but it will also provide more equitable access to early learning programs across the country. By the fifth year of implementation, federal funds for Strong Start combined with existing early childhood slots will support an estimated 4.3 million slots, raising the percentage of low-income children under age 5 served by federal and state programs from 31 percent to 39 percent. Also, by spurring states with little investment, the Strong Start Act will make the biggest difference in states serving a small proportion of low-income children. For example, the four states currently reaching the lowest share of children—Utah, Arizona, Idaho, and Nevada—will expand capacity by more than 50 percent. (see Table 2 in PDF)

The Strong Start Act addresses, but does not completely solve, the issue of insufficient access to early education programs. Along with the two states that already reach a majority of low-income children under age 5—Vermont and West Virginia—eight additional states will have the capacity to enroll at least 50 percent of low-income children in early learning programs statewide—Florida, Iowa, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Oklahoma, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. However, there will still be 40 states that are unable to serve more than half of children. After the fifth year of Strong Start’s implementation, 60 percent of children will still not have access to a publicly funded early learning program without significant state or local investment. Continuous investment will be needed to continue to reach additional low-income children. Improving access to early learning programs involves not only expanding the number of available slots, but also equalizing the proportion of children served in each state.

Conclusion

A new federal investment to expand access to high-quality preschool would not be duplicative of existing investments. Rather, it would provide a much-needed boost in access to quality programs, expanding the number of children reached by public programs and enhancing the quality of those programs. Current investments in early childhood education leave many children without access to high-quality early learning programs. The Strong Start bill will expand access to children who do not currently have access to programs and expand the availability of high-quality programs. Even five years after implementation of the Strong Start Act, federal and state investments will need to grow to reach an additional 60 percent of low-income children under age 5.

Katie Hamm is the Director of Early Childhood Policy at the Center for American Progress. Erika Basurto is an intern at the Center.

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