Federal preschool bill highlights need to improve state program, advocates say
Nov 17, 2013 | By Lillian Mongeau | 2 Comments
Legislation introduced in Congress last week that would expand public preschool could serve as a wake-up call in California to beef up early education programs, advocates here say.
A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Wednesday introduced the Strong Start for America’s Children Act. The bill follows President Barack Obama’s call earlier this year for a new federal grant program for states wishing to create or expand their public preschool programs.
The new legislation, which closely mirrors the president’s proposal, lays out a dozen qualifications state preschool programs must meet or be working toward to be eligible for funding. California’s state-funded preschool program falls short on most of them.
“In our state, we’re lagging behind,” said Mark Friedman, the executive director of First 5 Alameda County, a taxpayer-funded commission working to improve child care and education services for children under age 5. “We have to work with the Legislature and with the governor to make the changes required to make funds a possibility if (the law) is passed in Washington.”
It’s “wildly optimistic” to hope that the preschool proposal will pass in the 113th Congress, Friedman said. And if it did pass, California wouldn’t be compelled to change anything. Participation in the proposed program would be optional and states would be given significant leeway in how they structure their preschool programs.
But that shouldn’t stop California from bringing its state-funded preschool program up to the quality standards outlined in the new bill, Friedman said.
The state’s program meets some of the standards already. California has developed Preschool Curriculum Frameworks for 3- and 4-year-olds that align with the new Common Core curriculum standards for K-12, as the new federal legislation requires. California state education department officials also monitor local programs and enforce strict health and safety standards, both measures that would be required under the new program.
A large influx of cash would be needed to bring California’s program up to par in areas where it does not currently meet federal quality standards, said Debra McMannis, the director of the child development division of the California Department of Education, which oversees state preschool programs.
Now, for example, the state only funds a half day of preschool in most cases, while the new legislation would require that full-day programs be offered. Also, most teachers in the state preschool program are paid lower wages than K-12 teachers. The new legislation would require parity.
The new legislation also would require that teachers hold a bachelor’s degree. In California, only a Child Development Associate credential is required. The new legislation also would require programs to provide or connect families with health services. California’s programs are not currently mandated to offer these services.
Nevertheless, McMannis thinks the state-funded preschool program is in a strong position to be considered for federal funds, should they become available. In the meantime, she said she wants to expand and improve California’s program based on the newly released federal standards.
“When and if the money becomes available, I want California to be poised to throw our name in the hat,” McMannis said. “This (bill is) another reason that California needs to reinvest in early education programs so that we don’t fall behind and we can take these federal dollars when they become available.”
It could be a lot of money.
Nationwide, the state grant program would cost $27 billion over five years, according to the House bill. California would be eligible for $334 million of that in the first year, according to initial predictions by the U.S. Department of Education.
In addition to the preschool grant program, the new legislation contains increased funding for Early Head Start and for programs to support pregnant women and new mothers living in poverty. California would be eligible for $21 million for programs to support pregnant women and new mothers in the first year of the program.
No funding mechanism was included in either version of the bill, so if these bills reach the floor for debate, part of the discussion will have to center on how to pay for the new program.
In his 2014 budget proposal, Obama proposed raising the federal tobacco tax to generate the revenue to pay for the new program. This idea was not codified in the bill introduced to Congress, though aides who worked on writing the bill say they hope the idea can still be discussed during the debate.
The suggestion of raising taxes has not proven popular.
And some early education advocates in California, where the First 5 commissions are funded by a tobacco tax, are unsure that is the best way forward for the proposed federal program.
“In most every other industrialized country early childhood programs are seen as a fundamental right of its citizens,” said Friedman, of First 5 Alameda. “In those countries they haven’t needed to enact a ‘sin tax’ to fund something so fundamental.”
Reps. George Miller, D-Martinez, and Richard Hanna, R-N.Y., sponsored the House version of the bill and advocates have hailed Hanna’s participation as evidence that the bill has bipartisan support. Currently, however, Hanna is the only Republican lawmaker in Washington supporting the bill. A spokesperson for Hanna’s office said the congressman will be seeking the support of other Republican members of the House in the coming weeks.
“I may be the first Republican” to endorse this legislation, “but I won’t be the last,” Hanna said at the event officially unveiling the legislation, Education Week reported.
None of the Republican congressmen from California spoke publically on the bill last week, but several have previously spoken out against it. Rep. Ken Calvert, R-Corona, told EdSource in June that he was opposed to expanding federal programs by raising taxes. Rep. John Campbell, R-Irvine, told EdSource the plan was “fiscal insanity.”
Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Ill., sponsored the Senate version of the bill, which includes some additional funding and stricter qualifications for state eligibility to receive the funds. Senate aides who helped write the legislation said their team had approached several Republican senators about co-sponsoring the legislation, but none of them were willing.
The Senate education committee plans to hold a hearing on the bill early next year, according to Senate aides. It might take longer to see any action in the House.
Chair of the House Education and Workforce Committee Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., responded to the introduction of the new bill by calling for a hearing in the coming weeks “to discuss the challenges facing early child care and education in America.” He said Congress should examine opportunities to improve existing federal early childhood programs like Head Start and the Child Care and Development Block Grant program before investing new funds.
Despite the hurdles, preschool advocates here are pleased the idea is moving forward.
“This is an historic moment for early education in the United States,” said Scott Moore, chief policy adviser for Early Edge California, a statewide advocacy organization pushing for better public services for children from birth to age 8. “It’s the beginning of what we hope is a national movement for ensuring that all children have the opportunity to be ready for success in school.”