House Republicans questioned the need for new early education programs and asked if the research showing the benefits of preschool has been oversold Tuesday at a Workforce and Education Committee hearing on early childhood programs.
“Serious questions remain as to whether these programs are producing positive results for the children they serve,” said committee chairman Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., at the hearing.
President Barack Obama first proposed a new federal grant program to help states establish or expand publicly funded preschool programs in his 2013 State of the Union Address. He renewed that call in his 2014 address. A bill, called the Strong Start for America’s Children Act, which codifies the president’s proposal, was introduced in both houses in November. When the bill was first announced, Kline promised he would hold hearings on early childhood programs, though not the bill specifically, in early 2014. Tuesday’s hearing was the first.
Kline opened the hearing by pointing to the latest report from the Government Accountability Office, which shows that the federal government provides billions of dollars for early childhood support in 45 existing programs.
“These programs need serious review,” Kline said. “This should be our first step before rubber stamping a new program.”
One of the Strong Start bill’s authors, Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, co-chair of the House Workforce and Education Committee, said that only two of the 45 programs – Head Start and Child Care and Development Block Grants – specifically serve young children. Seventy-five percent of the listed programs allow for spending on early childhood, but do not mandate it, said Miller, who added that federally funded programs do not have sufficient funding to serve all eligible children. In California, only 60 percent of eligible children are enrolled in Head Start.
Russ Whitehurst, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, testified that research showing preschool provides benefits like increased graduation rates and less time spent behind bars is outdated and inapplicable to the large public programs being proposed today.*
“Preschool has been sold recently as a silver bullet,” said Whitehurst, a former researcher with the Department of Education under George W. Bush. “It’s not.”
Another witness, Harriet Dichter, executive director of the Delaware Office of Early Learning, countered Whitehurst, directing the committee to a recent analysis of the research done on preschool outcomes over the last several decades that shows even large public programs like Head Start have at least a small positive impact on the future earnings and educational outcomes of enrolled children.
The Strong Start bill was not the focus of the hearing, but Whitehurst did suggest an alternative to a new federal program: more vouchers for early childhood care for low-income Americans. (The federal Child Care and Development Block Grant program currently provides some vouchers similar to what Whitehurst proposed.) Whitehurst said $7,000 would be a large enough voucher for parents to purchase high-quality early child care of their choice. That amount would not be sufficient in California. Private child care in the state costs an average of $12,000 a year.
Miller urged his fellow congressmembers to consider the Strong Start bill and to approve legislation that would provide greater resources for early childhood programs.
“Until Congress chooses to act on this, we are ceding control to the (Obama) administration,” Miller said, then paused to look at Kline. “Got that?” he asked his Republican colleague. Kline nodded.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension Committee will hold a hearing on the same subject Thursday morning at 10 a.m. Eastern Time, 7 a.m. Pacific. C-Span will live-stream the hearing.
*Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly characterized the Brookings Institute. It is a non-partisan, independent think tank.