President Obama said relatively little about education (and nothing about pre-k or early childhood) in his State of the Union address last night—and most of that focused on higher education—disappointing some education observers who had expected to hear more about the administration’s agenda for Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization. D.C. insiders, who have already been skeptical about the odds for passing reauthorization this year, took this as further evidence that we’re not likely to see reauthorization completed until after November’s election.
That said, President Obama did clearly call on Congress to finish work on passing the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, which would reform the federal student loan programs and use savings generated by the reform to fund investments in college access and affordability, community colleges, and early childhood. As we reported last year, the House of Representatives has already passed its version of SAFRA, but the bill has been stalled in the Senate behind health care reform. Last night, the President urged the Senate to follow the House’s lead in passing SAFRA. Although he mostly framed this call in terms of helping financially pinched families pay for college, passing SAFRA would also have important implications for early education, because it includes provisions authorizing and funding the proposed Early Learning Challenge Grants, which would incentivize and provide funding for states to build comprehensive birth-to-five systems.
As we’ve noted previously, ELCG is an important step to help states build early childhood systems. It’s also a fitting complement to the Race to the Top education grant program, which the President did mention last night. Both R2T and ELCG set out specific reform components that states should have in place, and they offer competitive grants as both an incentive for states to implement such reforms and a boost to help them take reforms to the next level. The reforms sought are different: In the case of R2T, those reforms include high-quality student longitudinal data systems, ensuring teacher effectiveness, turning around chronically failing schools, and committing to adopt common standards. In ELCG they include quality rating and improvement systems, systems of professional development and credentialing for early childhood educators, and systems to collect data and measure early childhood outcomes. But the strategy is the same.
SAFRA still faces some hurdles towards passage, though. A Senate bill has not been introduced, and because the bill is expected to go through the reconciliation process in the Senate, further movement awaits decisions on health care. Early Ed Watch will be keeping a close eye on how or if it may emerge in the Senate in the coming weeks and months.