Senator Tom Harkin's pre-K bill gives legislative form to the pre-K education plan announced previously by President Obama. Photo used under Creative Commons license. Originally posted on Flickr by the US Department of Education.
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Today, House and Senate lawmakers gave legislative form to President Obama’s vision of pre-kindergarten education for all low- and moderate-income children around the U.S., first announced in his February State of the Union address. The bills, both called the Strong Start for America’s Children Act, were introduced by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, and Reps. George Miller (D-CA), ranking member of the House Education & Workforce Committee, and Richard Hanna (R-NY) in an event Wednesday morning following months of behind-the-scenes negotiations.

In both the House and Senate proposals, the federal government would distribute funding ($1.3 billion in fiscal year 2014, and an increasing amount over the following four years) to all eligible and interested states according to a formula – each state’s share of low- and moderate-income 4-year-olds as compared to that state’s population of all 4-year-olds. States would have to put up matching funds that total 10 percent of their award in the first year, but increase those funds in each year thereafter. Neither the House nor the Senate, though, require the high, 300 percent match that the president included in the 10th year of his plan – the most any state would be required to pay is 100 percent of its federal award.

House and Senate lawmakers gave legislative form to President Obama’s vision of pre-K for all low- and moderate-income children.

States can then offer subgrants to school districts or public or private community-based organizations that offer high-quality pre-K and agree to partner closely with school districts (though funds don’t have to flow through the districts). Local grantees, among other things, must be prepared to implement family engagement plans, coordinate with Head Start and other early learning programs, work with school districts to ensure continuity of instructional programs and preparedness of the workforce, and plan to offer comprehensive services to children enrolled in the program. The funds must be used first for 4-year-olds at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty level, and then may be used to provide pre-K for low-income 3-year-olds.

For states to be eligible for the federal dollars—almost $27 billion over the first five years of the program—they must submit applications to the Secretary of Education proving their eligibility and describing what they’ll do with the funds. States must:

  • Have early learning standards in place (most already do) that address multiple domains of learning (including social-emotional development and approaches to learning);

  • Be able to, or at least develop a plan to, link pre-K data into the state’s longitudinal data system (about 28 state pre-K programs can now);

  • Provide state-funded kindergarten (only six states don’t require school districts to offer kindergarten); and

  • Have in place a state advisory council on early childhood education (most states received funding for this under the stimulus bill, but it expired this year).

State plans must be ambitious, addressing a comprehensive list of goals that include, for instance, plans for the following:

  • Increasing the number of teachers with bachelor’s degrees in early childhood education, and plan for ongoing workforce development;

  • Working with higher education institutions to ensure they have the capacity to prepare a high-quality pre-K workforce;

  • Ensuring program standards are in place for pre-K programs and developing a plan to evaluate them (state quality rating and improvement systems [QRIS] are noted as an acceptable method of program evaluation);

  • Defining a strategy to increase the number of children in high-quality pre-K programs;

  • Broadening participation in the state’ pre-K programs to children with family incomes over 200 percent of the federal poverty line;

  • Guaranteeing the expansion of pre-K programs won’t reduce the availability of child care programs for infants and toddlers; and

  • Agreeing to increase the number of children enrolled in high-quality kindergarten (the House bill leaves this open-ended, while the Senate bill defines this as full-day kindergarten and requires that in states without full-day kindergarten, kids served under the pre-K dollars in the bill would have access to state-funded full-day kindergarten).

Certainly the most notable component of both bills is the emphasis on quality. Both the House and Senate are explicit that the preschool programs they plan to fund must be high-quality. For example, they must require that:

  • Staff have bachelor’s degrees in early childhood education or another field with training in early education, as well as comparable salaries to K-12 teachers;

  • Class sizes and child-to-teacher ratios are low (no more than 20 children in a class and 10 children per teacher, according to the Senate bill);

  • The pre-K program is full-day – at least 5 hours, according to both bills, and equivalent to the K-12 school day under the Senate bill; and

  • Pre-K programs are continually monitored to ensure they at least meet the standards of the Head Start program.

President Obama’s plan was laudable, not just for a similar focus on quality, but for its attempt to build an early learning continuum that would give children a strong start in life to carry them into elementary school. That included Preschool Development Grants to help states build out their early learning systems, a partnership program between Early Head Start and child care providers, and a continuation and expansion of the home visiting program. States could make full-day kindergarten a secondary priority with their preschool funds once they’d provided pre-K to all eligible 4-year-olds.

The House and Senate plans followed suit — at least on most of those elements. One deviation is that pre-K dollars wouldn’t be allowed for full-day kindergarten under either bill; instead, lawmakers require states to build or expand it on their own dime.

Both bills would implement the Preschool Development Grants program: States that aren’t receiving the pre-K expansion dollars may receive 3-year grants (with at least a 20 percent match of state dollars) to build capacity and infrastructure for pre-K. It would be funded at $750 million for its first year. And both bills would implement “early learning quality partnerships” between Early Head Start programs and child care providers. States would receive the funds based on their share of young kids below the poverty line, and partners would work to expand child care programs and improve quality.

Finally, both bills sneak in another provision that was included in a Senate Child Care and Development Block Grant reauthorization bill introduced earlier this year. Under that element, states could not recalculate families’ eligibility for CCDBG more than once every 12 months unless the family’s income exceeds 85 percent of the statewide median income for that family’s size. That would allow for continuity of care when, for instance,  a parent loses a job.

In related news, last week, Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) preempted release of the pre-K bills with a few proposals of his own: one bill would improve family engagement strategies with a new competitive grant program, while the other would help states build systems of education and training for early education teachers.

President Obama’s plan was laudable for its attempt to build an early learning continuum.

But few are optimistic about either bill’s chances this year–or the chances of other early education bills. They rely on significant new appropriations from Congress at a time when budgets are wildly uncertain and partisan debates over spending limits dominate the conversation. Moreover, they’ve been introduced near the end of the session — one report said Congress is likely done with its legislative business for the year, because there’s no oxygen left in the Capitol Dome for compromise. Only the House pre-K bill drew a Republican cosponsor; Senate Democrats are going it alone. Moreover, Sen. Harkin has announced he will not run for reelection in 2014, which means his pre-K bill will need a new champion. That being said, these bills are still hugely significant. They have given solid form to ideas that have circulated in early education circles for years, and are a powerful jumping-off point for early learning advocates on Capitol Hill.

For more on the pre-K bills, check out these great questions from Sara Mead (Mead previously worked as director of New America’s Early Education Initiative); this useful summary from Alyson Klein at Education Week;  and this helpful analysis from the National Institute for Early Education Research.