If the recession was difficult for adults, it was just as hard on young children. Between 2009 and 2013, enrollment in state-funded pre-K programs barely budged, up from 40 to 42 percent. Meanwhile, per-child spending on those pre-K programs fell, and Head Start programs felt the effects of sequestration more acutely than most, with 57,000 kids forced out virtually overnight and their parents stranded to scramble for child care. Policymakers continued to ignore the needs of a growing dual-language learner population. Achievement gaps between rich and poor kindergartners have grown, as have gaps in fourth-grade test scores for low- and high-income children.

A new report my colleagues and I released last week, Beyond Subprime Learning: Accelerating Progress in Early Education, charts a path forward for early learning in America with a series of essential improvements–and a few bold ideas that, with enough political will, could fundamentally change the design of the birth-to-third-grade educational spectrum.

Although the report’s recommendations are wide-ranging and cover a number of topics, two categories in particular could make a big difference: streamlining the current system, and tapping into sources for sustainable public funding.

What do we mean by streamline? As of now, the road to receiving early education services is littered with complications. Head Start is available primarily to families at or below 100 percent of the federal poverty level; free lunch and food stamp eligibility is set at 130 percent of the federal poverty level, which reduced-price lunch is available all the way up to 185 percent of the poverty level; child care eligibility is based on a maximum of 85 percent of a state’s median income; and states set their own limits for pre-K programs. In some programs, like with child care subsidies, families become ineligible entirely when their incomes pass the limit by as little as a dollar.

Even teachers are caught up in the confused system: Each state sets its own markers for what kindergartners, for example, should know and be able to do; and each states designs its own teacher licensing structure. And while some states offer early education or early elementary licenses, like birth-to-age-5 or PreK-3rd grade, others offer omnibus licenses that cover all grades, from pre-K through elementary or even middle school. Teacher preparation programs, particularly in omnibus-license states, often neglect early-grade teachers’ niche needs, like social-emotional learning.

Lawmakers should make it simpler for families to access early educational opportunities by standardizing eligibility. But they should also work towards cohesion in the early educational system, including closer alignment between pre-K and early grade teachers and greater consistency in our understanding of what children need to know.

But streamlining alone is not enough. Of course, ensuring access to high-quality pre-K and other early education, and building those programs into the larger educational system, comes at a cost. Although most Americans in a recent poll stated that they support investments in early education, policymakers have yet to catch up to public opinion. There’s not nearly enough money to go around.

Instead, we propose that states increase their investments in pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds–with help from the federal government, at first, through a matching program–and take responsibility for those programs. States and school districts are already responsible for the bulk of K-12 educational costs, while the feds tack on about 12 percent of the total funding; pre-K should be incorporated into that system, with teachers paid comparably to K-12 teachers and funded through the same funding formulas as the other grades.

Meanwhile, lawmakers at all levels of government should begin thinking creatively, using sources such as reappropriated dollars from inequitable tax expenditures, public-private partnerships, and even as yet unproven sources like social impact bonds to kickstart the changes. Already, the current generation of young children is off to a rocky start, with more kids subject to the incredible stress of poverty and unemployment caused by the Great Recession and many of the services available to their families made victims of belt-tightening on Capitol Hill. There is not time to waste in moving forward to ensure their younger siblings have more opportunities.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

Clare McCann

Clare McCann is a policy analyst with the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation. Find her on Twitter: @claremccann