Early education wins in spending bill, but universal pre-k a long way off

Early education wins in spending bill, but universal pre-k a long way off
Early education wins in spending bill, but universal pre-k a long way off

Credit: KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC

Credit: KENT D. JOHNSON / AJC

Compared to the big plans President Barack Obama brought to Decatur a year ago, the nearly $1 billion in new early childhood education money Congress just handed out is a pittance.

But advocates see the funds in the spending law signed last week – at a time when cuts have been dominating the federal budget conversation – as a bipartisan building block that will bring results for tens of thousands of children nationwide.

Following last February’s State of the Union Address, Obama visited College Heights Early Childhood Learning Center and gave a speech nearby calling for the federal government to provide high-quality preschool for all 4-year-olds, modeled in part after Georgia’s lottery-funded program.

The 10-year, $75 billion proposal, to be paid for with a new tax on tobacco, was rejected by congressional Republicans and was sidelined amid debates over across-the-board “sequestration” cuts to existing programs.

But negotiators struck a budget deal last fall to replace some of the cuts, and in a detailed spending bill rushed through Congress last week with big, bipartisan margins, advocates were pleasantly surprised to find early education initiatives with $943 million more than pre-sequestration levels, according to an analysis by the First Five Years Fund early childhood education advocacy group.

Instead of launching a new pre-k initiative, the money builds on existing programs — Head Start, child-care vouchers and Race to the Top – allowing Republicans to claim credit for thwarting a massive new spending proposal. Many conservatives still oppose the increases and argue Head Start is ineffective.

Georgia Republican U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson, who once served as chairman of the state’s board of education, said the Georgia universal preschool model for 4-year-olds works because of its funding from the state lottery and its public-private partnerships.

Isakson called the extra billion “a drop in the bucket” compared to Obama’s request.

“The president’s doing the right thing to focus on Head Start, which is an existing program,” Isakson said.

The national pre-k plan would be “a new program and a new bureaucracy,” he added. “I told the president the money’s just not there to fund a 4-year-old pre-k program nationwide.”

Rep. Hank Johnson, a DeKalb County Democrat, was at the Decatur Recreation Center last year when Obama said: “If you are looking for a good bang for your educational buck, this is it right here.”

Johnson said he was ready to push for the full nationwide program and the spending bill is a harbinger of more cooperation between Republicans and Democrats.

“Overall what we’ve seen is Congress understands the importance of funding early childhood education, and that is a breakthrough given the gridlock that has existed about the federal debt,” Johnson said.

The spending package includes $8.6 billion for Head Start, restoring cuts from sequestration and adding another $625 million.

Of that sum, $500 million will be put toward early Head Start programs for infants to age 3. The money could be used to expand a pilot program to bring subsidized child care for low-income families up to Head Start’s standards — including high-quality teachers, smaller classroom sizes, a focus on nutrition and social services for parents.

Catriona Macdonald, policy adviser for the First Five Years Fund, said the Head Start child-care partnerships increase per-child spending from an average of $5,500 to $13,000.

“It’s a really exciting new initiative because it leverages money in the child-care program that’s already being spent but is only sufficient to pay for pretty low-quality care,” Macdonald said.

The subsidized child-care program also gets a boost of $154 million from last year, putting it $68 million ahead of pre-sequestration levels, Macdonald said.

In addition, the spending bill sends $250 million to Race to the Top early learning challenge grants for states with innovative early childhood programs. In December Georgia secured $51.7 million over four years – the largest grant of any state — meaning it is highly unlikely to get any more Race to the Top early learning money this year.

Lindsey Burke, an education expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, said funding increases for Head Start in particular are poorly spent. She cited a study released in late 2012 by the federal Department of Health and Human Services showing that testing gains by Head Start children fade by third grade.

“Head Start has a terrible track record for the low-income children it’s supposed to serve,” Burke said.

She said Head Start funding should be portable so families can use it on private child-care options.

“When you expand government preschool programs at any level, you are crowding out the private provision of care and ultimately limiting choices for families,” Burke said. “Excellence in early education should be our goal, but it requires abandoning the presumption that government preschool is preferable.”

Macdonald, of the First Five Years Fund, pointed to studies looking past test scores to show Head Start children have been more likely to stay in school longer and earn more money, while they are less likely to go to jail.

“At the end of the day, as a taxpayer, that’s what I care about,” Macdonald said.

Senate Democrats estimated 40,000 more low-income children will have access to early Head Start programs and an additional 22,000 will receive child care through vouchers, though agencies have wide leeway in how to spend the money.

In a display of persistent philosophical gaps even when the parties agree on something, House Republicans emphasized different numbers in touting the same spending bill. The section covering labor, health and education programs is controlled by Rep. Jack Kingston, a Savannah Republican running for U.S. Senate this year, who voted against the bill but helped shape it.

The GOP's bill summary advertises cuts to the overall Department of Education budget and that there is no funding for new Obama administration initiatives.

“Instead,” it says, “the bill makes targeted investments in an existing program for states to improve access to high-quality, early childhood education.”

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