Earlier this month, the Senate HELP committee began its markup of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act on a high note for early education. In his opening statement, HELP Chairman Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) declared full support for Senator Patty Murray’s (D-WA) Early Learning Alignment and Improvement Grants (ELAIG) Amendment, saying “ Senators Murray and Isakson (R-GA) will propose and I will support an amendment for competitive planning grants to help states expand quality early childhood education by addressing the fragmentation of current federal, state, local, public and private programs.” Senator Alexander’s strong support for ELAIG foreshadowed the amendment’s later unanimous approval by voice vote.

Alexander’s support for the amendment is unsurprising given his past laments about the “45 federal programs providing some early learning and child care” and his fear of “a national school board for preschool education.” Since the release of a GAO report that purportedly found wasteful spending and duplicate programs in early education. Senator Alexander has been a proponent of streamlining existing birth-to-5 programs and giving power of coordination to the states, though he does not support additional funding for direct child services.

In some ways the amendment is like the Race to the Top — Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC). It’s focus was on increasing access to high-quality early childhood education programs and improving coordination across those programs. It was intended to help states build infrastructure. RTT-ELC did not directly open new slots for children to attend high-quality programs and it only went to 20 states.

Unlike RTT-ELC, though, there is no real emphasis on helping states to define and identify high-quality programs, improve early learning standards and assessments, or build the knowledge and skills of the early childhood workforce. In fact, the amendment explicitly limits the federal government from “specifying, defining, or prescribing anything related to standards, assessments, systems to determine quality, teacher qualifications, or even the term “high-quality.”

This would be fine if we didn’t know what worked in early education, but research is actually converging on a series of essential elements that make early education work especially well. Certainly some RTT-ELC-winning states could use these hypothetical ELAIG funds to continue their work, but given the limited specificity it’s unlikely to spur new states to take on those same kinds of efforts in a robust way.

For those (like us at New America) who believe that pre-K should be an essential piece of public education, not an add-on, these changes to ESEA are not bold or game-changing. (Read our thoughts on how to strengthen early education in ESEA here.)

That being said, we recognize that it may not be the right time to expect an expansion of pre-K slots and a reconceptualization of public education that starts younger. Certainly coordination is better than nothing and we applaud Murray’s ability to make this happen. Murray’s amendment attempts to help states better align funding from federal, state, and local sources, including across programs such as Early Head Start, Head Start, the Child Care and Development Block Grant, and the Preschool Development Grants program. But aligning funds from programs with different requirements (sometimes very different requirements) is no easy feat. Take eligibility requirements for instance. Head Start is aimed at families at or below 100 percent of the federal poverty level. Free lunch eligibility, under Title I of ESEA, is set at 130 percent of poverty. And the federal government sets child care subsidy eligibility at a maximum of 85 percent of a state’s median income. Additionally, state and local pre-K programs often have their own requirements for family eligibility. (Read more about this issue in our 2014 report, “Beyond Subprime Learning.”)

The amendment does place an emphasis on increasing access to high-quality, birth through kindergarten entry programs for low-income families, especially those living in rural communities. In an era of limited federal funding, prioritizing children from low-incomes is important. And rural communities sometimes get ignored even though they face big challenges when it comes to providing high-quality early childhood education options.

A recent report released by the U.S. Department of Education described a lack of equitable access to high-quality pre-K for all American children. This report was outlined by our colleague, Ebone Williams who explains that although there have been investments in early childhood education, our nation has not kept pace with the need. As Senator Murray said when introducing her amendment, “Democratic and Republican governors and state lawmakers are already making investments in early learning. It’s time for Congress to catch up.”

We agree with Senator Murray that it’s time for Congress to catch up, but think there is a better way to do it. Here at New America, we have called for greater coordination across federal early education programs and state programs, but we have also called for greater federal funding to build states’ capacity to enable high-quality early education programs to serve more children, especially those from low-income families, and to help improve programs that aren’t quite there yet. Without a dedicated funding stream for early learning services, it will be difficult for states to meet the demand for high-quality early learning programs from birth-to-5.

So what’s next for ESEA? The next stop is the Senate floor, but a vote has yet to be scheduled. According to Lauren Camera at Politics K-12, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) plans to “choose from a handful of bills that have strong bipartisan backing for floor action before the current work period ends May 22, including the education bill.” But, of course, it’s not up to the Senate alone, the House must also decide to act. It’s still uncertain whether the Senate and House will come to agreement on a new ESEA that the President would actually sign.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

Laura Bornfreund

Laura Bornfreund is deputy director for New America's Early Education Initiative. Before joining New America, Ms. Bornfreund consulted for a number of education policy organizations including the Forum for Education & Democracy, Institute for Educational Leadership, and Common Core. She began her career as a 4th grade teacher. Ms. Bornfreund holds a master's degree in public administration from the University of Central Florida.