In our recent report, Beyond Subprime Learning: Accelerating Progress in Early Education, we put forth dozens of recommendations for federal, state, and local policymakers; teacher preparation programs at colleges and universities; community organizations; and school leaders to help the field better meet the needs of young children and their families and improve access to high-quality early education opportunities.

New America is just one of many groups with ideas for how to improve children’s outcomes and family well-being.  While progress has been slow to date, calls for making early education a national priority have not fallen entirely on deaf ears.  For instance, President Obama announced an early learning initiative in his State of the Union address, and key education lawmakers in Congress took up the call. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee, and Rep. George Miller (D-CA), ranking member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, with Rep. Richard Hanna (R-NY), joined forces to put legislative form to the idea.

Among many other compelling reforms, both the House and Senate versions of the legislation (called the Strong Start Act) emphasize a recommendation we noted in Beyond Subprime Learning: A fundamental rebalancing of state and federal responsibilities for early education. The federal government’s spending comprises only about 12 percent of all public K-12 spending nationally; the remainder of the spending is divided between states and school districts. Yet many states do not even offer pre-K or other publicly funded early education programs, leaving the federal government (through Head Start, home-visiting, and other programs) and perhaps a smattering of school districts as the only public providers in the state.

We argue that instead, states should be responsible for contributing the bulk of the costs. The Strong Start legislation could be one path to accomplish this. It would implement a federal-state partnership program that would gradually transfer fiscal responsibility for expanded state pre-K programs from the federal government to the states. States would pay as little as a 10 percent match—or as much as 100 percent—for their share of the federal dollars. And states would use their own dollars as well as the federal match to provide subgrants to school districts and community-based organizations for pre-K for low- and middle-income children.

The Strong Start Act is a long way from passage, given political turmoil and the imminent retirement of two of its chief sponsors, Sen. Tom Harkin and Rep. George Miller. However, one provision of the legislation actually became law earlier this year, through $250 million in an appropriations bill: the Preschool Development Grant competition. Those grants, for which the Department of Education recently released new details, are designed to help states bolster their early education infrastructure and, importantly, build connections and alignment between early childhood and K-3 programs – one goal we cited in Beyond Subprime Learning.

The Child Care and Development Block Grant has more promising prospects, at least if the House jumps on board. That bill was drafted by a bipartisan group of senators and passed the Senate overwhelmingly by a 96-2 vote. If the House takes up the bill, it could mean big changes for child care – with many of the reforms similar those we proposed in Beyond Subprime Learning. For example, it would allow parents who are laid off and/or who become ineligible for federal child care subsidies to continue receiving child care for a period of time, giving them the opportunity to find new work or arrange for alternate care. And states would be required to coordinate their child care programs with other early education programs and family services – a critical step to ensuring a high-quality continuum of care and learning from birth on up.

And despite all the interest in early education over the last few years, higher education has arguably garnered even greater salience in the public debate. Earlier this summer, the House and Senate each announced plans to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, which contains an element critical to ensuring high-quality early education classrooms under Title II: educator preparation requirements. The reauthorized law could place more emphasis on the teaching skills and developmental expertise that make a significant difference to children. First and foremost, that means focusing on the quality of interactions between educators and children, a key recommendation in Beyond Subprime Learning.

Our report is chock-full of policy ideas that can be implemented by government officials, colleges and universities, community groups, school administrators, and other stakeholders that aim to move the needle on student achievement, workforce quality, economic mobility, inter-generational poverty, and so much more. Fortunately, there are legislative solutions to some of those ideas. Now we just need members of Congress to come back from the campaign trail and get to work passing those bills into law.

Click here to read our full Beyond Subprime Learning report.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

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Clare McCann

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