New Pre-K Bill Contains Revolutionary Data Requirements

Yesterday, lawmakers in both the House and Senate released nearly identical bills similar to President Obama’s pre-K for low-income children proposal. We’ve already written about the bill and some of it’s most important features, but one section that hasn’t yet gotten much attention is in the reporting requirements. That section contains new data requirements that would be a huge step forward in how we understand and talk about pre-K in this country.

Three paragraphs towards the bottom of the bill (§123(b)(9-11), to be precise) would completely change the way that funding, location, and dosage (the amount of time children spend in pre-K programs) are reported – and in some cases, would make that information available for the first time.

Funding

States would be required to break down what share of each pre-K provider’s funding comes from federal, state, and local sources – and how much comes from different programs. So for instance, if the provider receives money from two different federal programs (say, both Head Start and the Child Care and Development Block Grant), each program would be broken out by its own percentage.

[pullquote]It may seem obvious that policymakers would want to know how providers are funded, but currently there are barely any data to answer this question.[/pullquote]

It may seem obvious that policymakers would want to know how providers are funded, particularly given how incredibly complicated early education funding is, with dozens of programs cobbled together to fund pre-K slots. But currently there are barely any data to answer this question. The new reporting requirement would suddenly allow us to see how funding is blended by pre-K providers, and give policymakers the information they need to determine whether the current blend is appropriate.

Location

Under the pre-K bills, the state would have to report both the local education agency and the zip code in which each provider operates. Again, it sounds obvious. But because many state-funded pre-K providers don’t operate out of public school buildings, it can be surprisingly difficult to determine which areas a given provider is serving, and how a pre-K program ties into the K-12 system.

This requirement goes beyond making the lives of data researchers easier. It signals a connection to the larger public K-12 system – a key goal of the pre-K bills, which would require community-based organizations that receive public funds to coordinate with the local school and ensure children transition from early learning programs to public K-12 seamlessly. Knowing how the pre-K program aligns with the school district makes it easier for superintendents, principals, and parents to quickly access data on children likely to enter into the K-12 system. It can also highlight inequities in funding and access to pre-K by more easily indicating which areas are underserved. Elsewhere in the bill, states are required to link their pre-K data into the state’s longitudinal data system, which further joins the public pre-K and the larger public education system.

Dosage

As we’ve discussed previously, dosage, or the amount of time a child spends in a classroom, is nearly impossible to determine at the national or state level. In part, that’s because pre-K is often defined by states as half-day or full-day, but there is no common definition between those binary descriptions. And while the difference between 5 and 6 hours per day may not sound like a lot, that adds up to 5 hours per week. By the House definition, that’s a full day of pre-K. That means the child in the 6-hour program gets the equivalent of a full extra day of pre-K per week (although it wouldn’t count for anything under either bill).  But those differences in learning time are masked by using the “full-day” and “half-day” terms.

That’s why the House and Senate bills go beyond the full-day and half-day tags. States are required to report the “number of operational minutes per week and per year” for each provider that receives funding from the program. So our 5-hour and 6-hour programs would both be considered full-day for the purpose of defining eligibility for pre-K grants under the program. But requiring that minutes be reported means that, for the first time, we could have reliable data as to how long preschoolers are actually in a classroom. This is not only helpful for transparency, but also for research. The outcomes of children compared to how long they were engaged in pre-K education is a key public policy question. We have recommended a minute-per-day and –per-year total like the one in the House and Senate bills, and we’re pleased to see such language included in the bill.

These three requirements, along with others that require the state to report students’ demographics and information about teachers, make this bill an important step forward in obtaining—and utilizing—better data on pre-K programs. And even though the bill will almost certainly not become law in its current form, it’s promising that the drive for better data is finally being taken seriously at the federal level."

Author:

Alexander Holt is a policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America. As a member of the higher education team, he studies the economics of higher education as well as the effect of the nonprofit sector on the U.S. economy.

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