Who Knew Student Loan Reform Could Mean So Much To Early Childhood?
A centerpiece of President Obama's early education plan -- the Early Learning Challenge Fund -- just got its ticket to ride in a sweeping student aid bill introduced today by House Education and Labor Chairman George Miller.
The primary purpose of the Student Aid and Financial Responsibility Act (SAFRA) is to reform federal programs that provide subsidized loans for college students. The proposed reforms would create some $87 billion in taxpayer savings. Miller's legislation would capture a portion of those savings -- $10 billion over 10 years -- to fund Early Learning Challenge Grants. (Here's the full text of the legislation.)
The details of the program are similar to what the administration outlined in its fiscal year 2010 budget proposal. A key difference is that SAFRA would provide $1 billion in mandatory funding for early childhood programs each year over the next 10 years, rather than the $300 million in discretionary spending the Obama administration initially sought for 2010.
A summary of the bill posted online earlier today says that to win these grants, states would need to commit to build comprehensive early childhood systems that include:
- Early learning standards reform.
- Evidence-based program quality standards.
- Enhanced program review and monitoring of program quality.
- Comprehensive professional development
- A coordinated system for facilitating screenings for disability, health, and mental health needs.
- Improved outreach and support to parents.
- A process for assessing children's school readiness.
- Use of data to improve child outcomes.
States could apply for one of two types of grants: Quality Pathways Grants and Development Grants. The amount of money awarded in either case would be based in part on the number of low-income children in the state. States would also need to match a fraction of the funds (as low as 10 percent in some cases) with state money or private donations. The state's share would increase over time to as much as 30 percent.
To win a Quality Pathways Grant, a state would need to show that it already has in place key components of a comprehensive early childhood infrastructure that helps disadvantaged children, such as developmentally appropriate early childhood standards that align with K-3 standards and some form of quality rating improvement systems The grants would last five years and could be renewed at the end of the grant term.
Development Grants, by contrast, will not be renewable and will last only three years. They are for states that are further behind in developing their early childhood infrastructure than the Quality Pathway states, but show a serious commitment to improving the quality of their early learning programs and childcare centers.
In the first three years of the program, 65 percent of the funds would go to the Quality Pathways states and 35 percent would go to the states with development grants. But by the fourth year, the bulk of the money will shift toward the Quality Pathways states that can sustain already high-quality systems, with only 15 percent of money available for states going after development grants. The idea is that at the end of their three-year grant period, states that receive Development Grants will have made sufficient progress in building their early childhood infrastructure that they can apply for and receive a Quality Pathways grant.
The bill also dedicates 3 percent of the $10 billion to research activities, including the creation of a national commission to examine and compare each states' early learning and quality standards.
Another slice is reserved for administering the program. The bill states that the Secretary of Education "shall reserve 2 percent jointly to administer this title with the Secretary of Health and Human Services." HHS administers the Head Start and Child Care and Development Block Grant programs that provide the bulk of federal funding for early care and education programs.
We have already described the Obama proposal as ambitious in its attempt to improve quality and create a full-fledged system that moves children through high-quality settings up to and through third grade. A unified system would be far easier for parents to navigate than today's catch-as-catch-can nonsystems of early care and education. And building a stronger system of early care and education is essential for better linkage with the K-12 public school system to ensure that children build a solid base of cognitive and social-emotional skills by the end of third grade.
It's exciting to see a bill tackle issues that are so often missing in education legislation. And we're heartened to see quality emphasized so consistently.
The bill is also intriguing because the grants, as they are conceived, will place states in competition for scarce resources. The current economic downturn is placing pressure on policymakers in many states already to cut funding for child care and pre-K programs. The legislation as written requires states to maintain their own early childhood funding at 2009 levels in order to receive funds. Ideally, the opportunity to compete for substantial infusions of funding will create incentives for at least some of these states to maintain and even increase their commitments to early childhood programs. We'll be paying close attention to see which states decide to step up to the plate and which ones give up on trying to even win any federal money at all.
Since the administration first proposed the Early Learning Challenge Grants program in May, we've raised a number of questions about how the Early Learning Challenge Grants will actually work in practice. Now that legislation to authorize this program is taking shape, we have yet more questions:
1) How exactly will the Department of Education and the Department of HHS coordinate to disseminate these grants? Administration officials have lauded the Congress, as well as representatives from both departments for coming together to develop these proposals. But how will it pan out when real money is involved?
2) The bill would hold states that receive funding accountable to increase the number of disadvantaged children served in "high-quality" early care and education settings, but does not actually define what a high-quality setting means. It is unclear to what extent will states be allowed to define quality for themselves. The bill does requires that the proposed commission sets benchmarks for standards, though by the time those are established, grants will already be out the door. Experience with state elementary and secondary education standards mandated by ESEA suggests that, when left to their own devices, many states will revert to the lowest common denominator. And, in fact, efforts are underway to establish more common, national standards at the elementary and secondary level. How will the administration learn from these experiences and create a meaningful definition of high-quality to which states are accountable at the early education level?
3) How does this program fit into the administration's larger education agenda to ensure that early learning gains are sustained in high-quality early elementary school programs? Advocates for young children are increasingly talking in terms of "birth through eight" programs that ensure children develop a solid base of cognitive and social-emotional skills by the end of third grade, rather than just focusing on zero to five programs. That's a positive development that reflects research evidence about how young children learn, as well as the experience of effective PreK-3rd education models. Although the rhetoric around this program-from both the administration and now Chairman Miller's office-focuses on the need to help states build "birth to five" early care and education systems, certain provisions -- such as requirements that early learning standards be aligned with K-3 standards and encouragement for states to integrate early childhood and K-12 data systems -- suggest the administration and Chairman Miller are actually thinking more in terms of birth through eight.
Still, there are areas where the legislation could do more to encourage integration between the early childhood and public education systems. What policy changes will the administration and Chairman Miller seek to implement as part of Elementary and Secondary Education Act reauthorization to encourage integration between preschool and elementary programs and to help public elementary schools solidify and build on preschool learning gains?
These questions are not intended to splash cold water on what will be a red-hot bill among the early education community in the weeks to come. But we suspect they will be part of the animated conversation that will be taking place among advocates and policy makers as the bill moves forward.
Staff for Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions chairman Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) are already working to develop companion legislation in the Senate to authorize Early Learning Challenge Grants, but we don't yet know when the Senate might take it up and how it could change in that process. We'll continue to follow this as the bill goes through the House Labor & Education Committee and, we expect, onto the House floor in the coming weeks.