What the Midterms Mean for Early Childhood Education

The 2014 midterm election results (at least, most of them) are in, and for the first time during President Obama’s tenure there will be unified Republican control of Congress. The last few years have been plagued by extreme partisanship and gridlock, making the 113th Congress one of the least productive in recent history. With the House and Senate no longer divided, lawmakers will likely be able to move more bills onto the president’s desk. But given that President Obama is facing the limited power of a lame-duck session and likely pressure to veto, many are asking whether any legislation will make it to a bill-signing--and whether gridlock actually stands any chance of being broken up over the next two years.

Given all that, what might GOP control of both chambers mean for early education policy?

The Big Picture: A New Senate Majority

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) easily won reelection last night, making him the likely chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee come January. He’ll be replacing a giant of the early education world, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), who is set to retire at the end of the current session. Last year Harkin introduced the Strong Start for America’s Children Act in Senate, which calls for significant federal and state investment in early learning, largely through expanded access to pre-K programs for 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families. Alexander doesn’t support the Strong Start Act and is skeptical about more federal government involvement in pre-K. His own early education bill would combine existing programs and give states discretion in determining how to spend the money. He has praised the Child Care and Development Block Grant, which passes federal dollars to states and allows them to distribute the funds with few restrictions, as a successful model for early childhood legislation.

The House Education and the Workforce Committee’s leadership will likely remain the same, with Representative John Kline  (R-MN) retaining his position as chair. But Democrats on the committee are losing another one of early education advocates’ strongest allies, again to retirement. Rep. George Miller (D-CA), currently the committee’s ranking member, co-sponsor of the House version of the Strong Start Act, and a long-time supporter of Head Start and other early education initiatives, is set to leave Congress at the end of this year after 40 years of service.

With both Harkin and Miller gone, it’s unclear who the strongest pre-K champions will be in either chamber. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), currently chair of the Senate Budget Committee, is one option; with her background as a preschool teacher, she has long been an advocate for increased federal investment in early learning. And Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) will likely take the mantle of Democratic leader of the committee. But they’ll both face significant opposition from other members. Rep. Kline, like Sen. Alexander, is wary of adding new early education programs over concerns about creating more, potentially duplicative federal programs; and given ongoing budget concerns, neither is rushing to increase spending on programs that they feel have not yet proven effective.

With both Harkin and Miller gone, it’s unclear who the strongest pre-K champions will be in either chamber.

In fact, funding is likely to be a huge barrier to expanding access to and improving the quality of early education in this Congress. Though congressional Republicans are likely to utilize the budget reconciliation process to expedite some of their spending and revenue bills, including some that will likely affect higher education policy, most early education programs will fall instead under the oft-excruciatingly drawn-out appropriations process. In appropriations, House and Senate Republicans will continue working to limit federal spending, at least on domestic programs. That includes the enforcement of overall spending limits set by the Budget Control Act of 2011 (BCA)--the effort that gave us sequestration. The BCA limits the potential for new federal programs or for expanded funding for existing ones.

But although the President’s $75 billion Preschool for All initiative is unlikely to be funded during this Congress, early education will surely continue to be a top education priority for the Obama administration, and one he hopes to work with Congress on. That means we can still expect to see some progress in this field over the next few years. Whether that will take the form of continued funding for the Preschool Development Grant program, Head Start reauthorization, or bold new initiatives remains to be seen. Sen. Alexander has pledged to renew the HELP Committee’s focus on reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, currently known as No Child Left Behind; however, it’s not likely that there will be much in the way of new funding or policy for early learning programs included in that package.

On the Ground: State and Local Results

While many Republicans who support early education investments are unlikely to push for the level of federal investment the president is asking for, efforts will not end there. Other avenues to expanding early education--namely, state and local efforts--may see more immediate progress. A handful of Republican governors have led the charge in years past to expand access to pre-K and other early learning programs, and this year will likely be no different.

The gubernatorial elections decided yesterday may drive many of those new initiatives. In Gov. Rick Scott’s (R-FL) reelection bid, both he and his opponent, Republican-turned-Democratic candidate Charlie Crist (D-FL), adopted pre-K as part of their platforms. That was despite Scott’s per-child spending cuts to the state-funded pre-K program. Scott won reelection with a narrow margin, and all eyes are on him to see whether the pre-K talk was just rhetoric or whether it was something more.

The Pennsylvania governor’s race is a little more clear-cut. The wildly unpopular Gov. Tom Corbett (R-PA) didn’t hold the position for long--he was first elected in the 2010 race. But Corbett managed to rack up a reputation as cutting budgets for education programs, overstated in some ways, even in that short time. And some of those budget cuts meant school districts cut early learning and/or student support programs. His opponent, Tom Wolf (D-PA) and governor-elect, on the other hand, announced as part of his platform that he supports universal, full-day pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds, full-day kindergarten, and efforts to improve the quality of early learning programs. Early education advocates will be watching Pennsylvania closely to see if it tops the leaderboard in improved access and quality of early learning programs.

Other state and local efforts are more directly focused on early education programs. A constitutional amendment on the ballot in Hawaii asked voters whether public pre-K funding could be appropriated to private community-based organizations, as other states do. A yes-vote would mean the state spends at least $125 million per year on the pre-K program--but instead, voters said no. And in Bartholomew County, Indiana, a ballot measure to levy a 5-cent-per-$100 property tax that would fund district-wide pre-K programs was handily defeated, according to early returns that had 54 percent of voters against the tax hike. It’s the second time that particular ballot question has been defeated.

But it isn’t all bad news for early education. Seattle, Washington residents overwhelmingly passed a ballot initiative to expand early childhood education, and then selected the more concrete of two follow-up questions, which would expand pre-K access to 3- and 4-year-olds by raising $58 million in property taxes over the next four years. Our colleague, Conor Williams, dives into Seattle’s carefully designed pre-K expansion plan here.

San Franciscans also voted to extend and expand the city’s Public Education Enrichment Fund (PEEF) through an increase in property taxes. More than 73 percent of voters approved this proposition, and part of PEEF will be used to fund universal pre-K. And in Denver, Colorado, despite a loss for education advocate Sen. Mark Udall (D-CO), voters approved Question 2A, an extension and increase to the sales tax that funds the city’s public pre-K program. The program has been especially powerful in making the case for pre-K, with studies that show the program has a positive impact on school readiness.

Virtually all lawmakers at the local, state, and federal level will likely grapple with whether and how to expand high-quality early education programs over the next several years.

This isn’t a comprehensive list, of course. Many more races than these touched on early education policy, and many more will in the years to come. (For more commentary, read here, here and here.) And some races remain too close to call; in typically conservative Idaho, for example, where the Democratic candidate Jana Jones has been a staunch supporter of more funding for education programs, including early learning programs, the state schools chief race remained undetermined this morning.

But given its increasing public support, virtually all lawmakers at the local, state, and federal level will likely grapple with whether and how to expand high-quality early education programs over the next several years. The election results seem to be something of a mixed bag in terms of support for early learning programs, but only the next few years will show how things pans out."


Abbie Lieberman is a policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America. She is a member of the Early & Education Education team, where she provides research and analysis on policies that impact children from birth through third grade

Clare McCann was a policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America.