The federal Strong Start for Children Act, which would provide states with large grants to create or expand publicly funded preschool for 4-year-olds, passed along party lines today in the U.S. Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

Introduced last year by Rep. Ed Miller, D-Calif., Rep. Richard Hanna, R-New York, and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the bill also contains funding to expand care for infants and toddlers living at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line. The bill was first introduced after President Barack Obama made universal preschool a key point in his 2013 State of the Union Address. The president reiterated his call for action on the preschool issue in this year’s address and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has campaigned heavily for passage of the bill since it was first introduced.

In his speeches across the country, Duncan has routinely called preschool a bipartisan issue, citing the many Republican governors who have pushed for increased funding for early childhood programs in their states. There was no evidence of bipartisanship today. Democrats voted for Harkin’s bill and Republicans voted against it.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., spoke out forcefully against the idea of spending more federal dollars on early education. He also objected to the guidelines for teacher salary, class size, length of school day and other quality standards outlined in the bill.

“I mean, never before has the federal government told school districts how to run their schools in such detail,” Alexander said, calling the bill the equivalent of creating a national school board for 4-year-olds.

The $22 billion the federal government is already spending on early childhood education through various programs should be more than enough to cover states’ needs, Alexander said. He proposed an amendment to the bill that would have consolidated all federal early education funding and handed it out to states with many fewer guidelines than the current legislation proposes. The vote on Alexander’s amendment mirrored the vote on the bill, but in reverse. The 10 committee Republicans voting for it and the 12 committee Democrats voting against it.

Harkin said the federal money currently spent on early childhood education fell “far short” of what was needed to support all children and pointed out that more than half of 4-year-olds who qualify for Head Start are not enrolled in the program due to lack of funding. He read from a long list of experts who supported the quality standards included in the bill in an effort to rebut Alexander’s argument that they were an attempt by the federal government to control local schools. Harkin also emphasized that states would not be required to accept funding provided by the bill and could thus avoid following any of the rules that came with it.

“This bill does not represent a takeover of the states,” Harkin said, “it represents a partnership with the states.”

The Strong Start for Children Act now goes to the full Senate for debate at a date not yet set. Watch today’s hearing (starts at 17:46).

Lillian Mongeau covers early childhood education. Contact her or follow her @lrmongeau.

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