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Brookings and APPAM Host a Discussion of the Obama Preschool Initiative

May 30, 2013 02:12 PM

DSC_2405Earlier this year, President Barack Obama proposed “working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America.” He also called for “a national priority to give every child access to a high-quality early education.” The 2014 budget, released in April of this year, included $75 billion over the next ten years for such a preschool initiative, with another $17 billion tagged for other early childhood programs. The initiative has used research that shows children from poor families who attend high-quality preschool are better prepared for school entry and may show other long-term benefits as well.

At a forum held on May 29, 2013 by The Brookings Institution, in conjunction with the Association for Public Policy Analysis and Management (APPAM), Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke once again about the ambitious expansion of prekindergarten programs. With little interest among Washington politicos for more spending, coupled with a dislike among some camps to give the federal government more power, the President’s central education policy priority faces a monumental struggle to become law.

DSC_2367Secretary Duncan believes he can bring together a “very interesting coalition” that can push the proposal through Congress. “Despite all the evidence, dramatically expanding high-quality preschool poses real challenges. These days, getting folks here in Washington to do anything proactive together is a challenge,” he said. “But I'm actually confident these challenges can be met because of the leadership I already see across the country from Republicans, Democrats and Independents.” Secretary Duncan mentioned that twenty-seven governors as well as the mayor of the District of Columbia all referenced early learning in their State of the State addresses earlier this year.

The proposal would fund public preschool for children in a household with a total income below twice the poverty rate, just less than $40,000 for a two-parent home with one child. Wealthier families could participate but parents would be required to put in some money. States would be in charge of delivering the education; the federal government would eventually phase out monetary assistance over the course of the proposal—a time frame of ten years. The Department of Human Health Services would oversee child development education for infants through three years of age, while the Department of Education would handle the preschool stage, typically ages three and four. Both departments would collaborate for a seamless transition between stages.

At the end of the program, states would still be required to continue the programs under parameters dictated by Washington. “Governors all across the country get it, quality early childhood education is the smart thing to do; it’s the right thing to do for these children and the nation,” said Secretary Duncan. “We want to close the opportunity gap so we need high quality pre-k at four years of age and even that’s late. Let’s help these families from infancy all the way through their educational experience.”

DSC_2387Former Congresswoman and former Chairman of the House Ways and Means Human Resources Subcommittee Nancy Johnson (R-CT) spoke after Mr. Duncan’s opening remarks. She commented on some of the challenges that states already face in making use of already-available preschool monies, as well as potential areas of compromise between the President’s proposal and the states. “Getting early childhood education right can be tricky, but it is irresponsible not to bring the thinking of smart government to the table when talking about this issue,” said Ms. Johnson. The primary concern among opponents of the President’s proposal is the possible formation and continuation of educational silos.

A panel of education researchers and experts then analyzed the President’s proposal. Moderated by Ron Haskins, Senior Fellow and Co-Director of the Center on Children and Families at The Brookings Institution, the panelists included: Roberto Rodriguez, Advisor for the Domestic Policy Council; Russ Whitehurst, Senior Fellow and Co-Director, Brown Center on Education Policy at The Brookings Institution; Jenni Owen, Director of Policy Initiatives, Center for Child and Family Policy at Duke University; W. Steven Barnett, Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University; and Linda Martin, Deputy State Director for Economic Services for South Carolina.

“I’m skeptical about Washington taking a ‘hands on’ approach to early childhood education,” said Whitehurst. “The federal government needs to let the states establish their own processes, stand back, assist and monitor.”

DSC_2425Barnett said “If you want to solve the school failure problem in the U.S. and you focus on poor kids, you’ll miss most of the problem.” He noted that it’s less of an achievement gap than it is an “achievement gradient.” A disproportionate focus on the poorer families fosters an “us versus them” mentality. Barnett mentioned that “no examples of successful targeting programs exist anywhere in the world.”

Owen raised two key points relevant to the proposal: implementation and workforce support. "Guidance that stems from research evidence often focuses on the why behind policy change without an equal emphasis on the how of policy and program implementation," said Owen. Time should be allowed “for mid-course check-ins, to help foster greater success.” Each state should have enough flexibility to implement the proposal and future changes as they see fit. The workforce for the proposal is currently underpaid—a highly skilled preschool worker makes an average of $19,000 annually—and not considered as part of the proposal’s solution. With a higher salary bar and better benefits, such as an effective employee assistance program—these workers will rise in qualifications and help create the high quality preschool environment envisioned by the President. “Children shouldn’t just enter kindergarten ready to learn,” said Owen. “They should already be learning.”

DSC_2461One of the key panelists in the forum’s discussion was Linda Martin’s brief but succinct presentation. In the state of South Carolina, where state revenues are low, the current funding only meets 20 percent of those children eligible for childcare services. Martin commented that unlike her colleagues on the panel, she is looking at childcare not from the top-down aerial view, but “from the ground, looking up. And it looks a lot more tangled from the ground, looking up.” Her department has brought many programs relating to childcare programs under one umbrella by necessity. “We have discovered that it matters so much that things not be siloed; when there’s not enough money, you need it all in one place,” said Martin. “You need it all available to you so you can provide it to where you get the most ‘bang for your buck.’”

All of the panelists agreed that while large parts of the proposals have merit and are worth discussion, there needs to be a closer examination of implementations and workforce expansions. States should have the flexibility to work within the proposal’s requirements and adapt their own successes to the program.  All the panelists were hoping there would be one successful state model that other states could use as a guide for implementation. 

The entire forum is archived and can be viewed in its entirety at The Brookings Institution’s website and an online discussion can be found on Twitter under the #preKPlan hashtag.

View all of APPAM's photos from the event in the photo gallery.

 

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