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The Top Three Early Ed Requests in President Obama's HHS Budget

President Obama released his fiscal year 2016 budget request to Congress last week. Once again, the Administration has made it clear that early childhood education is a top priority. In his $4 trillion request, the President is asking for approximately $84 billion in discretionary funding for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which oversees most federal early childhood programs, including the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), Head Start, and the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program (MIECHV). He’s also asking for a sizeable funding increase for the Department of Education-- which my colleagues have the details on, here.

Calling this agenda ambitious would be an understatement, as the GOP-controlled Congress is unlikely to support the spending increases and tax hikes needed to fund these proposals. Even though most of these proposals will not come to fruition, this budget request does lay out the President’s agenda, and arguably the agenda of the Democratic party at large. It’s already sparking important conversations about the future of early childhood programs.

Here’s an overview of how the President’s HHS budget would impact our nation’s youngest learners.

Child Care:

On the early education front, access to affordable, high-quality child care appears to be the Administration’s number one priority this year. The President called for unprecedented levels of investment in child care programs to provide all low- and moderate-income families with access to reliable, high-quality services. He began outlining these proposals a few weeks ago during his State of the Union address.

First, he called on Congress to increase the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit so that families with young children could receive up to $3,000 per child to assist with childcare costs-- the maximum credit amount is currently $1,000. As depicted in the map, child care costs make up a significant portion of families’ expenses, and tripling the maximum benefit would reduce the cost burden for millions of families.

Child care proved to be a unique area of bipartisan agreement in the last Congress, and GOP leadership has already suggested that they might be on board with increasing the child care tax credit. This proposal is estimated to cost $120 billion over the next five years.

Additionally, the President proposed increasing mandatory funding for the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF), which funds the newly reauthorized Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), by $82 billion over ten years . These funds would substantially expand child care access for low- and moderate-income families with children under age four. The CCDBG law can more effectively regulate program quality, and thus better ensure that vulnerable children are placed in high-quality environments where they can reap the full benefits of early education programs. In the same vein, the Administration called for an additional $266 million in discretionary funding to help states implement the new CCDBG law.

Lastly, in true Obama fashion, the budget sets aside $100 million for a grant competition to support innovative child care models that serve high-need communities and meet the needs, for instance, of parents working nontraditional hours.

Head Start:

The President has requested $10.1 billion in funding for the Head Start and Early Head Start programs, which provide comprehensive services to low-income pregnant women and children from birth to age five. This marks a $1.5 billion increase in funding from last year’s appropriation. As depicted in the chart, Head Start has seen overall increases in funding during Obama’s tenure. However, the program is isn’t able to serve all eligible children.

Approximately $1.1 billion of the request would be used to lengthen the Head Start day and year to ensure that children receive adequate instructional time. Currently, Head Start centers for three- and four-year-olds have discretion when determining program dosage--as long as the program meets the minimum standards. According to the Administration of Children and Families, “Children in Head Start programs that operate under our current minimums of 3.5 hours a day and 128 days a year receive less than half the program hours provided by the high quality prekindergarten programs that have demonstrated stronger impacts.” Due to limited funding, many Head Start centers are unable to provide more hours of services.

Head Start has come under scrutiny in recent years as rigorous evaluations have suggested that the program may not be producing the same impressive results as other renowned early education programs. However, as I discussed in a previous post, research indicates that length of the school day and school year are two of the strongest factors impacting child outcomes in Head Start. Full-day programs offer more time for high-quality interactions between adults and children, increasing children’s opportunity to learn.

Under this budget request, all Head Start programs would offer full-day and full-year services, which the Department defines as at least six hours per day for at least 170 days per year. Grantees would also have the option of serving children for more hours to better align Head Start programs with local public schools. With this proposal, the Administration is looking at the evidence to determine how they can best improve the quality of Head Start.

Obama also proposed a $150 million funding increase for Early Head Start, specifically for the Early Head Start-Child Care (EHS-CC) Partnerships. EHS-CC Partnerships would receive $650 million to expand access to high-quality childcare for children from birth to age three. Only four percent of eligible families receive EHS services, and this program aims to increase participation in EHS and improve the quality of child care overall. EHS-CC is a relatively new program and HHS announced the first round of EHS-CC awards back in December. 

Home Visiting:

The budget request also included $500 million for the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program (MIECHV), marking a $100 million increase from last year’s appropriation. This program was first established in 2009 under the Affordable Care Act, receiving  $1.5 million in federal funding to offer voluntary, evidence-based home visiting services to low-income parents with children under the age of five.

MIECHV is modeled after other home visiting programs that have been proven to have a substantial positive impact on parenting practices and child outcomes. As my colleague Shayna Cook explains, “Home visiting programs are helping to facilitate positive interactions between parents and their children that research has proven not only builds language skills, but also develops a child's cognitive function and socioemotional skills.”

Federal funding for the program was scheduled to expire at the end of fiscal year 2014, but was extended until next month. The President’s budget requests steady funding for MIECHV for the next 10 years, but advocates are concerned that Congress needs to act sooner to save the program.

Overall, the President’s budget priorities for children, birth-to-age 4, and their families are backed by evidence and could help to improve early childhood outcomes by providing much-needed services to lower-income families.