ESEA Compromise Includes a Few Steps Forward for Early Learning

Earlier this week, Senators Lamar Alexander (R-TN) and Patty Murray (D-WA) released their compromise to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). You can find a good summary of the bill at Education Week’s Politics K-12. There are provisions to like and plenty to not like, but generally, it rolls back federal oversight of PreK-12 education.

While the bill does not include a separate title for early education or a dedicated funding stream for high-quality pre-K, there are some steps forward for strengthening early learning, PreK-3rd grade. I will briefly highlight five:

  1. As we have discussed before, Title I funds can be used to support children beginning at birth, which could include providing a pre-K program. However, a very small percentage of eligible children are supported with Title I funds prior to kindergarten. This draft bill explicitly states that providing early education programs is an allowable use of funds.
  1. The draft bill would require states to demonstrate alignment between their academic standards and “relevant” early learning guidelines. This could lead to better coordination between children’s learning in pre-K programs and in kindergarten.
  1. There is language explicitly stating that Title II dollars (funds to prepare, train, and recruit high-quality educators) could be used for early childhood educators. Here is a suggested activity from the bill for how a local school district could use these funds:

Provide programs and activities to increase the knowledge base of teachers and principals on instruction in the early grades, and strategies to measure whether young children are progressing which may include providing joint professional learning activities for school staff and educators in preschool programs that address the transition to elementary school.

I see this as important for two reasons. First, many teachers, and especially principals, lack preparation that sets the right expectations for instruction and learning in kindergarten and the early grades. In other words, teachers and principals are often not taught how young children learn best or how intentional play, is a powerful instructional tool. In addition, elementary school principals are not necessarily taught to view classrooms that might appear chaotic on the surface as well-organized, well-planned environments where significant learning in reading, math, science, etc. can happen. So, this language could lead to professional learning for educators on how to improve teaching and learning in PreK-3rd grade classrooms. Second, this language specifically states that staff and educators in pre-K programs can participate in professional learning activities, and seems to open the door to programs located off school grounds that might feed into the elementary school.

  1. Also included in Title II is a new program that focuses on improving literacy instruction birth through 12th grade, embedding parts of Senator Murray’s LEARN Act.
  1. Finally, the draft bill opens the federal charter school program to early childhood education programs. This means charter schools receiving grants could use federal dollars to add pre-K classrooms. It also means that a charter school applicant could open as an early education program, offering pre-K only.
These proposed changes are a good start to strengthening early learning in a new ESEA. Read some of our ideas on additional changes that could be made. I also encourage you to read my colleagues’ takes on other proposed changes to Title II and Title III, which focuses on English language learners.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee will take up the draft bill on Tuesday. I do not expect this bill to make it to the President’s desk — too many hurdles to get there. Nevertheless, this draft bill provides a new starting place for when ESEA reauthorization comes up again. And it’s not a bad place to be for early ed."

Author:

Laura Bornfreund is director of Early & Elementary Education Policy with the Education Policy program at New America. She leads a team of writers and analysts to conduct policy research and analysis and put forth new ideas for improving children’s birth-through-third grade learning experiences.