Credit: Lillian Mongeau/EdSource
Head Start students learn about counting.

The latest version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or ESEA, that’s before Congress more formally addresses early education and adds a competitive grant program to help states align their early education system with K-12 schools.

The U.S. Senate’s version of the bill, which passed with bipartisan support (81-17), “ensures that federal funds can be used for early education,” including support for preschool teachers and English learners. In the past, districts were able to use funds for low-income students, referred to as Title I funding under the ESEA, to provide programs for children from birth to age 5, but that ability was never formally stated in the law.

The ESEA, which is one of the primary sources of federal funds for education, was first passed in 1965. The most current version is referred to as No Child Left Behind.

Helen Blank, director of Child Care and Early Learning at the National Women’s Law Center, said the Senate’s version is a step forward because it explicitly recognizes early education as important. But the new version does not address the need for more funds to meet the overwhelming demand across the country for access to quality child care and preschool, she said.

The Senate’s version is a “small step,” Blank said. “But at some point we’re going to have to take a big step.”

An earlier amendment by Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., would have been a bigger step. It would have raised cigarette taxes to provide more than $30 million in new funding to support early education programs for children from birth to age 5. But that amendment was rejected.

“Senators from both sides of the aisle realize that getting children ready for success in school is a critical issue,” said Molly Tafoya, senior communications manager with Early Edge California.

Although the proposals for early education are somewhat limited, Molly Tafoya, senior communications manager with Early Edge California, said that momentum is building.

“Senators from both sides of the aisle realize that getting children ready for success in school is a critical issue,” she said.

The Senate version, called the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015, also includes a small increase in funding for Early Head Start, which serves children from birth to age 3, and grants to pay for child care and preschool for young children with special needs. It also has language that lets federally funded charter schools serve pre-kindergarten students and allows the creation of pre-K federal charters.

The House version, the Student Success Act, passed on a partisan vote of 218-213. It provides a cost-of-living increase for Head Start and a bigger increase in funding for Early Head Start than the Senate version. In September, a House-Senate conference committee will try to reconcile the two versions.

The proposed grant program to help states align preschool to K-12 education will have to survive the conference committee and compete with other programs in the appropriations committee for limited funding. The competitive grants will be awarded to only 18 states, Blank said.

The Senate bill represents “an exciting shift in conversation,” said Erin Gable, deputy director of First 5 California. “Building a bridge between early learning and K-12 is a smart thing to do.”

 

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