Every Student Succeeds Act and Early Learning

Blog Post
Dec. 9, 2015

Much to my and others’ surprise, it looks like there will be a new Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The House passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) last week, the Senate passed it earlier today, and the President is expected to sign it tomorrow. After eight years, it is about time!

For the past several years, New America has called on Congress to include early education in a more robust way in a reauthorized ESEA. While there is much to be concerned about in ESSA, there are some good additions when it comes to early education. Below is my take on what ESSA means for the early grades, including changes mentioned in an earlier post, along with a few important updates.Over the next couple of weeks, my other PreK-12 colleagues will provide their takes on the overall Act and specific areas of interest, including what it means for educators and for dual language learners. (Read Conor Williams’ unabashed take here.)

  • Title I funds have always been allowed 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 and encourages planning for transition from pre-K programs to elementary schools.
  • The bill includes language explicitly stating that Title II dollars (funds to prepare, train, and recruit high-quality educators) can be used for early educators. One way districts can use these funds is by providing 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.” Another is by increasing “the ability of principals or other school leaders to support [educators] to meet the needs of students through age 8, which may include providing joint professional learning and planning activities for school staff and educators in preschool programs that address the transition to elementary school.”

These types of activities are important for two reasons. First, many teachers and especially principals lack preparation on how to set the right expectations for instruction and learning in kindergarten and the early grades. As a result, teachers and principals often lack knowledge of how young children learn best or how intentional play is a powerful instructional tool. 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.

While these are all good and important inclusions, they are still just suggested activities in a list of many others. States and districts must choose to prioritize better connecting pre-K and the early grades of elementary school.

  • Also included in Title II is a new program that focuses on improving literacy instruction, from birth through 12th grade, embedding parts of Senator Murray’s LEARN Act.
  • Finally, the draft bill opens the federal charter school program to early education programs. This means charter schools receiving grants could use federal dollars to add pre-K classrooms. Anda charter school applicant could open as an early education program, offering pre-K only.

ESSA also includes a “Preschool Development Grant” program. This is an updated version of the amendment put forth by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA) earlier this year. Beyond the name, the program has little in common with the Obama Administration’s Preschool Development Grant (PDG) program that exists now. Under the Administration’s PDG, 18 states have grants to develop or expand access to high-quality pre-K slots for four-year-olds from low-income families. The program requires several quality indicators including full-day pre-K programs and lead teachers with bachelor’s degrees who are paid comparably to K-12 teachers.

The new PDG program, like the Administration's Race to the Top - Early Learning Challenge, is housed in the Department of Education (ED) and jointly administered by the Secretaries of Education and Health and Human Services. For unclear reasons, ESSA requires the new program to transition to the Department of Health and Human Services and be jointly administered with ED. According to language in the new law, it looks as though current PDG grantees may continue to receive funds in accordance with the terms of their existing grants.

The primary purpose of ESSA’s new PDG program is twofold. First, it aims to help states improve collaboration and coordination among existing early education programs (birth through school entry) in a mixed delivery system (public schools, home-based child care, center-based child care, Head Start, etc.). Second, it strives to smooth children’s transitions from pre-K programs to kindergarten.

Funds for the grants would be awarded to states on a competitive basis. Grantee states would be required to 1) conduct an extensive needs assessment on the availability and quality of existing early childhood programs in the state, 2) develop a plan that recommends collaboration, coordination, and quality improvement activities, 3) maximize parental choice and knowledge about programs within the state, 4) share best practices among early childhood education program providers across the state, and 5) improve the overall quality of early childhood education programs in the state.

The Secretaries can also choose to award renewal grants that would enable states to continue the activities discussed below as well as to create new early education programs as needed. But ESSA prohibits the federal government from requiring any quality indicators for those newly created programs. For instance, under the program, the Secretaries cannot require states to establish full-day programs or certain qualifications and compensation for teachers.

Of course, states still have to apply, and those with a plan for improving quality in a meaningful way will be selected. But, as with most competitive grants, funds will likely go towards states that are already moving in the right direction rather than those most in need of accountability and support. That is, states that aren’t even close to providing the level of quality that children need, especially children from low-income families, won’t have a bar to work towards.

In the new bill, Congress sends mixed messages about early education as an educational program. On the one hand, Congress added important provisions to allow professional development dollars to extend to pre-K teachers and federal charter dollars to support schools in adding pre-K. Congress also reiterated that Title I dollars can be used to support the learning and development of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers from low-income families. But, on the other hand, Congress takes the primary administration of Preschool Development Grants out of the hands of ED and into the Department of Health and Human Services. It’s true that the latter already administers Early Head Start for infants and toddlers and Head Start for 3- and 4- year-olds. But, as we wrote in our Beyond Subprime Learning report in 2014, it would be more effective for Head Start to move into the Department of Education or at least be jointly administered between the two agencies. We see this as a way to recognize Head Start as a public pre-K provider that emphasizes both educational and developmental outcomes while also extending its whole child focus into the K-3rd grades.

Perhaps, though, Congress isn’t being so ambiguous about its feelings on early education. In a tucked away section (pg. 866) of ESSA, there is a “Sense of Congress on Early Learning and Child Care,” which states:

It is the Sense of the Congress that a State retains the right to make decisions, free from Federal intrusion, concerning its system of early learning and child care, and whether or not to use funding under this Act to offer early childhood education programs. Such systems should continue to include robust choice for parents through a mixed delivery system of services so parents can determine the right early learning and child care option for their children. States, while protecting the rights of early learning and child care providers, retain the right to make decisions that shall include the age at which to set compulsory attendance in school, the content of a State’s early learning guidelines, and how to determine quality in programs.

As with K-12, it seems that Congress sees early education as the responsibility of states. But, unlike in K-12, the federal government does provide a large portion of funding for birth-to-five programs and we think such a large investment should come with stronger guidance around how states should be using those funds and what high-quality programs look like.

Ultimately, while I’m happy to see a stronger focus on children’s earliest years in this reauthorization of ESEA, I’m disappointed with the scaled back federal role in the overall law. There is too much flexibility for state and local education agencies and I share my colleague’s agitation about what this means for our nation’s underserved children. Some states will rise to the challenge and do what’s right and support these students. Other states will take an easier route and let students fall further and further behind, shirking their responsibility to help every student succeed."