Observers of early childhood education in the U.S., from parents to researchers to policymakers, would be hard-pressed to find much evidence that the country has any system at all. Child care providers are siloed from pre-K teachers, who are often removed from opportunities available to K-12 schools. Families face a hodgepodge of eligibility rules and requirements as they move from home visiting to Head Start (or to a state-funded pre-K program). Even federal funding streams barely intersect, leaving program directors to piece together the dollars in “blended” funding streams. Many directors, though, do not have the capacity to take on this daunting task. Nor should they have to.

The chaos described above is why we made bridging the continuum from birth through third grade our first overarching recommendation in a recent paper, Beyond Subprime Learning: Accelerating Progress in Early Education. Creating opportunities for high-quality early education for all children will require designing a comprehensive system that works effectively for everyone involved: families, teachers, program directors, and principals. This will require policymakers — at all levels — to make robust connections across existing silos and avoid creating new ones. It is the only way we will enhance teaching and learning.

Streamlining, though, does not simply mean eliminating some programs or their funding, as some in Congress have suggested should do. In fact, we make clear in our paper the need to tap into sources for predictable, sustainable, and increased funding. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), for example, noted in a HELP Committee hearing earlier this year that a GAO report had identified a whopping 45 federal programs totaling $22 billion focused on birth-to-5 services, including a dozen centered around early education and care. We dug into the study and found that the programs had very different audiences and missions, so simply eliminating some of the programs wouldn’t eliminate duplication–it would go much further, reversing progress on early educational access and quality.

That is why Sen. Alexander’s conclusion–that we don’t need new federal investments in early education –wasn’t quite right. The hearing was focused on the Strong Start for America’s Children Act, a bill introduced by Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), outgoing chair of the HELP Committee, that would provide federal dollars to states willing to expand their pre-K programs. Alexander and others (including Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) in his Expanding Opportunity in America plan released last month) want to consolidate existing programs. But if no current program specifically includes the goal of expanding pre-K access (none does, except the Preschool Development Grants that came out of the Strong Start bill), there’s nothing much to consolidate.

So streamlining, as we define it in Beyond Subprime Learning, means something entirely different. Rather than simply reducing the number of programs, we recommend that policymakers try to intentionally combine the collection of early education programs into a true system.

To that end, we include a wide range of suggestions for lawmakers. First and foremost, we suggest they reauthorize the current laws that affect early and PreK-12 education in a coordinated way. These include: the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA, known as No Child Left Behind in its current iteration); the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG); the Higher Education Act (HEA); the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA); and the Head Start Act.

We suggest reforms to each of these laws that would create more alignment and better connections across the early educational system. In all of those systems–teacher preparation and evaluation, standards, assessments, and more–policies should include multiple domains of learning across the birth-through-third-grade spectrum, including: cognitive skills, social-emotional development, and approaches to learning (persistence, curiosity, attentiveness, etc). And state and local governments, schools, and teacher preparation programs at institutions of higher education should be working to develop and implement approaches to teaching children of those ages.

Needless to say, true connections built across programs for young children and the early elementary grades won’t come easy. Many early learning providers are siloed, with limited, or no, interaction with other early education programs or even with the K-12 programs their graduates later attend. Pre-K teachers are often compensated far worse than their first-grade counterparts; states will need to dramatically increase their investments in pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds, ensuring in the process that teachers for those children receive comparable pay. And in states that provide pre-K and kindergarten programs to large swaths of the population, many of those children still only have access to only a few hours of school per week. Truly transforming the early education system will require additional federal and state funding and reforms to existing public programs (like Head Start).

With those new linkages and with better coordination across early learning programs and early elementary school, children will build better academic and social-emotional foundations; families will be better able to navigate the early education system; and educators will reap the benefits of cooperative learning and working.

Simply cutting programs deemed duplicative, as Sen. Alexander and Congressman Ryan have proposed, will do nothing to improve the system and instead will only limit children and their family’s access to much-needed services.

[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