WASHINGTON (AP) — Tens of thousands more American babies, toddlers and preschoolers would be eligible for early childhood programs under a budget deal reached by lawmakers that advocates hailed as an encouraging sign that Congress is committed to early education programs.
They are hopeful the next step will be the icing on the cake in early childhood education: Passage of universal preschool for 4-year-olds. There are still a lot of hurdles. The budget deal restores funds cut from Head Start programs that provide educational services to low-income students. The funds were removed under across-the-board budget cuts last year, and an estimated 57,000 children lost access to Head Start programs, according to the National Head Start Association.
The new budget deal includes $8.6 billion for Head Start programs — a $1 billion increase from 2013 that would expand Head Start to 90,000 new kids, according to the office of Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, the chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
Among those children are an estimated 40,000 new babies and toddlers who would be eligible for services under a $500 million expansion of early Head Start programs. The deal includes $2.4 billion for a program that provides grants to states for child care assistance for low-income families — a $154 million increase from last year, meaning 22,000 additional children would be helped, according to Harkin's office.
Advocates were also encouraged that the agreement would fund a $250 million Race to the Top competitive grant program that encourages states to create and expand all-day preschool programs for low-income children.
Congress is "acknowledging the importance of investing in a child's earliest years," said Mary Kusler, director of government relations with National Education Association. Catriona Macdonald, a team leader with the First Five Years Fund, an advocacy group focused on early childhood development, said, "The signal the Appropriations Committee sent with this legislation is that they have seen and heard the momentum behind early childhood education."
President Barack Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have long sought to improve the quality and availability of early childhood programs as a way to level the playing field for youngsters, primarily those who are poor and start kindergarten well behind their peers. They cite research that says every $1 spent on preschool has a $7 return because of money saved on public assistance payments and prison, and say only about a third of children attend high-quality preschool programs.
Duncan, in a statement, praised the agreement, even though it did not include some key administration proposals. Specifically, the administration had sought $750 million in preschool development grants to states and $75 billion over 10 years for a Preschool for All program that funds preschool for low-income children and encourages states to create or expand programs to others.
The budget deal disclosed late Monday still needs to be approved by Congress. It did not include the new preschool development grant program and Congress has not approved the president's universal preschool program. Cost is clearly a hurdle, but critics have also questioned whether gains made in early learning programs can be maintained long-term; whether high-quality programs can be done well on a large scale; and whether the government should even have a role in educating young kids. House Republicans, in particular, have been reluctant to create new programs.
Minnesota Rep. John Kline, the Republican chairman of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, has said there's agreement on the importance of early childhood education, but before investing in any new federal early childhood initiatives, opportunities should be examined to improve existing programs such as Head Start.
His Democratic counterpart on the committee, California Rep. George Miller, called the budget deal a "significant step" toward expanding early education programs. He said the next step is passing the bill he co-sponsored with Harkin that is similar to the president's plan for universal pre-K.
In other areas of education, the agreement would restore much of the funding cut from high-priority programs before last year's across-the-board cuts, including special education programs and schools with a high number of low-income students.
In higher education, it would include $75 million to create a "First in the World Initiative" to provide grants to colleges and universities to implement strategies that save money and improve graduation rates. It also would maintain the level of funding for the Pell Grant program.
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