It's Not How Obama Planned It, But There's New Hope for All-Access Preschool in America

Takepart.com

President Barack Obama has long advocated that every child in America have access to preschool and spoke on the issue earlier this year in his State of the Union address. Now, it looks like that just may come to fruition, except not quite the way the President had planned.

On Wednesday, with celebrity Jennifer Garner on hand, Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, the chairman of the Senate education committee, and California Rep. George Miller, the top Democrat on the House education committee, along with Republican New York Rep. Richard Hanna introduced legislation to improve the quality and quantity of U.S. pre-K programs. 

Numerous studies show that high-quality preschool improves achievement and closes achievement gaps. Children who attend pre-K often make better grades, have fewer referrals to special education, greater high school graduation and college-going rates, and lower teen parenting rates. Rep. Hanna has even said that it correlates to lower obesity and incarceration rates.

Thirty-nine states and the District of Columbia already offer state-funded pre-K programs—some are universal, some target children from families with low incomes or a certain risk factor, such as a teen parent, that has been known to affect child learning.

The bill, called Strong Start for America's Children Act, would allow states that want to offer free pre-K to low- and moderate-income 4-year-olds would get funding initially from the federal government. However, states are not mandated to provide pre-K, something the Obama administration has long wanted.

The Obama administration plan included expanding Head Start and services that allow home visits from teachers. Harkin's plan does not. Obama also wanted full-day kindergarten for children after states established pre-K for 4-year-olds. Instead, this legislation says that states—once they serve low-and-moderate income 4-year-olds—could expand the program to 3-year-olds. 

With Washington obsessed with its purse strings, Obama had proposed to pay for pre-K with funds from a tobacco tax. But Harkin’s plan calls for funding from the regular appropriations process with $1.3 billion in the first year, increasing to more than $8.9 billion by fiscal year 2018. But the source of the funds is not clear in the draft legislation, and Washington would not pick up the entire tab.

However, states could apply for federal grants to help them bolster their pre-K programs if they comply with certain measures, including linking their preschool data to K-12 data in order track the progress and importance of early learning. Pre-K teachers would also have to have bachelor’s degrees. 

The legislation focuses on improving the quality of the country's preschools. “By raising both standards for entry as well as the salaries of early childhood educators, the proposed legislation aims to increase the professionalization of the early childhood field and ensure that preschool teachers are well prepared,” says Villanova education professor Jershua Connor. “Clear standards, small class sizes, and parental engagement are also important ingredients of successful early childhood education interventions.”

Two states that have been lauded for their programs are Oklahoma, where 74 percent of 4-year-olds attend pre-K, and New Jersey, which has an enrollment of nearly 80 percent of three and 4-year-olds in pre-K in “high needs” school districts.

But more states need to take lessons from Oklahoma and New Jersey. And they may just need Washington's help to do so.

Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey, a Democrat, has long worked on early childhood education issues. He said in a statement: “Children in every state need to learn at an early age, need to learn to read. The circumstances of birth should not determine whether a child can read or learn.”

Education advocates ont he ground are hopeful and happy to finally have some type of legislation in play. “The profound and lasting effect of a child’s high-quality early experience underscores the vital need for Congress to come together and pass the bill," Gail Connelly, the executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, said in a statement. “Millions of children from disadvantaged families depend on this investment to break the cycle of poverty, which will ensure that they are college- and career-ready, complete college, and go on to become part of a productive workforce."

Still, the Act is far from a done deal and has to work its way through hostile waters on Capitol Hill where massive bipartisan support could be lacking.

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Original article from TakePart

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