Federal Investment in Early Education is on the Horizon. Here Are Our Questions.

Blog Post
Sept. 13, 2021

Back in April, the Biden administration released the American Families Plan (AFP), a comprehensive set of policies to support children and families that would change what parenthood looks like in the United States. The $1.8 trillion spending and tax plan would significantly expand access to education and safety net programs. Two of the “big ticket” items are $250 billion for child care and $200 billion to partner with states to create universal pre-K for three- and four-year-olds.

Fast forward to September 2021. House Education & Labor Committee Democrats recently released their section of the budget reconciliation package--the Build Back Better Act--which gives the American Families Plan legislative form. While the details may change during the reconciliation process, the House package includes $450 billion for child care and universal pre-K.

This may be a once-in-a-generation opportunity for comprehensive investment in our nation’s young children. If passed, many of the details won’t be fleshed out until the federal government issues regulation and guidance. Below are our questions and suggestions for the administration as they think through the nitty gritty of their child care and pre-K policies.

How will the administration determine the cost of quality for child care?

The difference between subsidy reimbursement rates and the actual cost of providing high-quality child care can be vast. President Biden’s goal is to close that gap. The AFP states, “Child care providers will receive funding to cover the true cost of quality early childhood care and education.” And the newly released budget reconciliation package supports this goal by requiring states to set payment rates “in accordance with a cost estimation model or cost study.” This marks a significant departure from the ubiquitous and flawed market rate survey methodology that all but seven states and territories rely on to set reimbursement rates.

Current federal policy encourages but does not require states to set payment rates at the 75th percentile of the market price. However, basing provider payment rates on the broken child care market is a recipe for underinvestment. Market rate surveys collect data on the prices providers charge parents and not on the cost of delivering care that meets high-quality standards. Prices are influenced by how much a parent can afford and how much a provider can charge and remain competitive, and prices do not include other sources of funding a provider may rely on to cover costs, such as grants or donations.

The Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) Act of 2014 expanded the options for states to utilize alternative methodologies and requires states to demonstrate how their payment rates consider the higher costs of providing higher quality care. A study on alternative payment methodology highlights two alternative approaches that center the cost of providing care: cost surveys and cost models/calculators. Cost surveys analyze data from a sample of providers to measure total costs. The cost modelling methodology calculates the total expenditures (both direct and indirect) of the many resources required to deliver high-quality care and meet health, safety, and program standards, while also compensating the workforce adequately. Several tools exist for cost calculation, including the Provider Cost of Quality Calculator (PCQC), developed with support from the Office of Child Care, and CostOut, developed by the Center for Benefit-Cost Studies of Education with support from the Institute for Education Sciences.

Payment rates should be set based on the true cost of delivering high-quality care, and should be delivered in ways that support provider stability such as negotiated contracts, per pupil rate formulas, or other methods of upfront funding.

How will the administration define pre-K quality?

The AFP states that it will “ensure that all publicly-funded preschool is high-quality, with low student-to-teacher ratios, high-quality and developmentally appropriate curriculum, and supportive classroom environments that are inclusive for all students.” And the newly released budget reconciliation package requires states to support “a continuous quality improvement system.” But exactly how will the administration define and measure pre-K quality?

A good starting point could be the 10 quality benchmarks established by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). These benchmarks include recommendations around teacher education and training, maximum class sizes, curriculum supports, and staff-child ratios. To be clear, these benchmarks establish a floor for standards pre-K programs should have in place and don’t serve as clear indicators of quality. Once pre-K programs are up and running, it will be important to assess the quality of classroom environments and the teacher-child interactions that research suggests is the best measure of early education quality. Some states and Head Start require the use of the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS) to measure the quality of interactions. Programs would also be well-served by focusing on three instructional practices and three policies that researchers and program leaders agree are indispensable for high-quality pre-K.

Because the promise of pre-K only holds if programs are high-quality, the administration must be clear about what constitutes quality. And as we move toward expanding pre-K at scale, more research and development of assessment tools that center equity and provide the data necessary for informing early learning investments are sorely needed.

What should professional development look like for pre-K teachers?

The AFP includes important policies to strengthen the early education workforce, including making higher education more accessible, improving wages, and ensuring that pre-K educators will receive job-embedded coaching and professional development. The current reconciliation package requires professional development and coaching as aspects of state efforts to support continuous quality improvement. With pre-service requirements for pre-K teachers varying so significantly from one program to the next, access to in-service professional learning is especially important for this workforce.

Yet, high-quality professional learning that is aligned with the research on how adults learn best and tailored to working with young children is hard to find. Many pre-K programs lack the resources for this type of professional learning, both in terms of time and funding. Effective professional learning can be expensive, especially when it involves hiring additional personnel, like coaches, or bringing in substitutes to cover classrooms during paid release time. And research finds that even many well-designed professional learning programs do not improve teacher practice or child outcomes. Even coaching, which has become increasingly popular, is not always effective.

New America released a report on pre-K professional development a few years ago profiling a handful of high-quality programs. Based on a review of the research, we chose programs that incorporate a combination of the following components of quality: use reflective practice and continuous improvement, incorporate in-classroom coaching; are classroom-focused, job-embedded, data-driven, ongoing, collaborative, and scalable; and designed with educator buy-in. Incorporating these components of quality requires time, money, and expertise.

The Biden administration should be mindful to support professional learning practices that have proven effective and should invest sufficient resources for programs and educators to fully pursue these opportunities.

What does a federal-state partnership for pre-K look like?

The AFP calls for “a national partnership with states to offer free, high-quality, accessible, and inclusive preschool to all 3-and 4-year-olds.” Ensuring all children have access to pre-K is imperative, but figuring out how to best achieve this within a mixed delivery system made up of pre-K programs of varied quality is a huge undertaking. What should governance look like? And how do we build on existing programs while also streamlining the system?

In the Build Back Better Act, this takes shape through a federal-state partnership where states interested in participating would submit their plan for providing “universal, high-quality, free, inclusive using a mixed-delivery model.” For states with approved plans, the federal government would cover 100 percent of the cost for subgrants to deliver pre-K services for the first two years. Then in each subsequent year, the federal portion reduces by 10 percent until 2028. In exchange for federal funding, states would prioritize providing pre-K services in high-need communities and ensure that children in those communities have access before the state expands pre-K to lower-need communities. States would also agree to several other requirements, including facilitating participation in Head Start programs.

Funding for Head Start is currently channeled from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services directly to thousands of local providers, bypassing state agencies. The current system can cause headaches and costs in monitoring and communicating regulations. It can also create silos between Head Start and state-funded pre-K programs, other early learning providers, and elementary schools. Rethinking a state role in Head Start could improve coordination among the various pre-K programs. However, states would need to meet quality standards in pre-K and ensure access to comprehensive services for families who need them most.

A recent report from The Children’s Equity Project at Arizona State University and The Century Foundation suggests building universal pre-K by expanding Head Start, which already provides high-quality early education and comprehensive services to low-income families throughout the country. The authors recommend expanding eligibility so that Head Start reaches all families. One of their recommendations is to create a new Head Start Pre-K Partnership program that would provide enough funding to meet Head Start standards in an effort to have common standards across the system and socioeconomically diverse classrooms. The National Head Start Association also released a recent white paper outlining how to expand access to pre-K with Head Start at the center.

Identifying ways to bring various pre-K programs into closer alignment will ultimately make administration, monitoring, and delivery easier.

How would the federal government encourage coordination and alignment across B-5 and K-12?

While high-quality pre-K can have a profound impact on children’s short- and long-term development, it’s important to remember that pre-K is not an inoculation. The best programs are coordinated with the years before and after pre-K to ensure that children have an aligned and comprehensive experience from birth through 3rd grade. For this reason, pre-K programs must be in a position to communicate and collaborate with both child care providers and school districts.

The reconciliation bill requires state pre-K plans to include a description of how the state will “improve transitions of children from early childhood education to elementary school,” but does not recommend specific actions states should take to improve the transition process. To ensure a seamless transition for children, families, and educators, state and local officials must work together to establish effective and supportive transition policies and practices that recognize transition as a year-long process that includes collaboration across early childhood settings and elementary schools. A toolkit recently released by New America and EducationCounsel offers immediate steps needed to strengthen children’s transition this school year and beyond and points to the federal dollars that can be used for transition.

The Biden administration and Democrats in Congress have a rare opportunity to secure meaningful investments in child care and pre-K that would support families for generations to come. There is still work to be done in the reconciliation process and Speaker Pelosi has signaled a vote on the package should take place sometime next week. Once funding is secured, it will be crucial to iron out the details to ensure that these programs live up to their full potential.

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Pre-K Other Early Childhood Programs