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Access and Quality: Providing Preschool with Purpose

Last week, the Senate released its bipartisan Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) draft. Fifty years after President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the first iteration of ESEA into law, and after years of regulation revisions, the current Congress has a chance to include an impactful investment in our nation’s young children. So far, though, Congress has not delivered. On the same day that the draft bill was made public, the U.S. Department of Education released a report that illustrates a need for action. A Matter of Equity: Preschool in America, evaluates our nation’s ability to provide high-quality pre-K access to all children.

According to the report, forty states, and the District of Columbia, offer voluntary state pre-K for at least some children in their state, serving a total of 1.1 million children nationwide. However, data on individual state enrollment show just how much access varies by state. Florida, Oklahoma, Vermont, and DC serve more than 70 percent of their four-year-olds in state-funded pre-K. In contrast, 11 other states, including Washington, Alabama, and Minnesota, serve fewer than 10 percent of 4-year olds. Based on the report, six out of 10 four-year-olds nationwide are not enrolled in publicly funded pre-K programs. And of those enrolled, the percentage is even smaller for children participating in high-quality programs. Take Florida for instance. Its state pre-K only meets 3 of 10 quality benchmarks collected by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER).

Research shows successful outcomes for children who attend high- quality pre-K programs. Children who participate in high- quality early education experiences tend to have better health, social-emotional, and cognitive outcomes than those who do not participate. Yet, African-American children and children from low-income families are the most likely to attend low-quality preschool programs and Latino children have the lowest pre-K participation rates of any major ethnicity or race. Without access to high-quality programs, the achievement and readiness gap of children in these subgroups will only continue to widen.

States have been the driving force behind the expansion of pre-K programs. Just last year 28 states (including states led by both Republican and Democratic governors) increased their investments, amounting to one-billion dollars of new state resources to be used for early education. Pre-K is not a one-sided issue.

Still the federal government has played a role in moving state pre-K work forward. In their report, the Obama Administration describes how its early education initiatives have created an environment that supports the expansion on the state-level. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ (HHS) Head Start Program adopted the Designated Renewal System that requires all providers to reexamine the quality of their programs. In December of last year, HHS notified 86 programs that they would have to compete in order to qualify for continued funding. This re-competition establishes accountability in Head Start, encouraging programs to provide high-quality experiences for children and families.

The Race to the Top - Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC), another Obama Administration initiative administered through an HHS and the U.S. Department of Education, provided twenty states withgrant funding. States have used funds to:

  • improve early childhood workforce preparation and training,
  • strengthen health services and family engagement,
  • link early childhood and K-12 data systems to learn more about how children’s early learning experiences impact school success, and
  • ensure that parents have information about high-quality early learning programs in their communities

Although not every state can win in a competitive grant program, the act of applying can lead to the development of public and private partnerships and promising ideas to improve early education. For instance, after applying for the RTT-ELC grant, Missouri was able to develop new and more comprehensive early learning standards for ages birth through five, through a partnership with the University of Missouri. And, Hawaii made  statewide investments in early education for the first time even without federal funds. Additionally, Hawaii has developed and released Taking Action for Hawaii’s Children, outlining six main goals for achieve overarching positive outcomes for young children.

A third program is the  Preschool Development Grant (PDG), a federal-state partnership program to increase the number of children enrolled in high-quality pre-K programs in high-need communities,. Through this program, 18 awarded states are using  grant funds to serve 33,000 additional four-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families in more than 200 communities in high-quality preschool programs over four years. Montana’s award will help the state improve access to high-quality preschool education in 16 communities, eight of which are on Indian lands. By 2018, Montana plans to serve an additional 5,000 children from low-income families. However, even with the grant, only about one-third of the states’ 4-year-olds will be served.

The Administration’s report acknowledges that there is not enough federal investment to meet state interest. Based on the report, several PDG state applicants could have made significant progress if they had access to necessary funding. For example, Mississippi proposed to triple the number of children in the state’s new preschool program, serving 4,291 additional children in high-quality preschool by 2018 and reaching almost half of the unmet need for four-year-olds.  The state had planned to improve the quality of preschool educators by investing in training and professional development and ensuring comparable pay for preschool teachers in funded-programs. But Mississippi did not earn a PDF grant. And although Ohio is an RTT-ELC recipient, using the $70 million dollar grant to improve the quality of its state program, the state could have used PDG funds to prepare 3,400 additional children in both urban communities and rural Appalachia for success in kindergarten.

There is still an opportunity for Congress to help provide all of our nation’s youngest citizens with a comprehensive early education foundation. One way is through a reauthorized ESEA that strengthens early learning."