Advocates Urge Passage of Bipartisan Pre-K Bill
Ed Walz (Former Staff)Early Childhood Education
Washington – The First Focus Campaign for Children, a bipartisan children’s advocacy organization, sent a letter today urging members of the United States Senate’s Health, Labor, Education and Pensions (HELP) Committee to pass the Strong Start for America’s Children Act (S. 1697). The proposal, introduced in November by HELP Chairman Tom Harkin (D-IA), would make quality pre-Kindergarten (pre-K) affordable for every child in America and strengthen early education by improving connections between child care, pre-K, and kindergarten. Companion legislation was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Congressman George Miller (D-CA) and Congressman Richard Hanna (R-NY), demonstrating a bipartisan commitment to ensuring that children enter kindergarten ready to learn.
“High-quality pre-K cultivates the ‘soft skills’ prized by employers, so this legislation gives today’s kids a better chance to compete in tomorrow’s economy,” said First Focus Campaign for Children President Bruce Lesley.
The legislation would make high-quality pre-K affordable by establishing a federal-state funding partnership similar in concept to the highly successful and bipartisan Children’s Health Insurance Program. It authorizes nearly $27 billion over five years in federal funding to support qualifying state pre-K initiatives. States receiving federal funds must ensure that high-quality pre-K:
- Is affordable – for all four-year-olds in families with annual incomes under 200 percent of the federal poverty level (about $23,500 for a family of four, in 2013);
- Works for all children – by establishing early learning standards that align with their K-12 education systems and are appropriate for the children they serve, taking into account their developmental, language, and cultural needs;
- Meets quality standards – like minimum staff qualifications, evidence-based maximum class size, child-to-staff ratios, and health and safety standards, and provides comprehensive services including nutrition, health screenings, physical activity opportunities, and opportunities to engage families; and
- Improves outcomes – though it prohibits states from relying on a single assessment, the bill requires that states report on their progress increasing school readiness, narrowing school readiness gaps between children of different races and incomes, and reducing special education placements.
The Campaign for Children also urged senators to reject amendments to block-grant early education initiatives. The letter cautions that block-grants are unnecessary, because the bill offers states considerable flexibility in the design and operation of their pre-K programs. It also warns that block grants would undermine efforts to ensure the safety and effectiveness of pre-K initiatives.
“If flexibility means pre-K initiatives aren’t safe or don’t work, kids aren’t getting what they need and taxpayers aren’t getting what they paid for,” said Lesley.
The letter also cautions against amendments to weaken the bill’s fundamental strengths. The first is the bill’s commitment to quality pre-K: teachers with college degrees and specialized training in child development; curricula that meet all of a child’s needs, including developmental, cultural, and language; small class sizes and settings that support and encourage learning; and “wraparound” services to ensure that empty stomachs, unmet health needs, and other problems aren’t standing in the way of kids’ development and learning. The second is a federal-state funding partnership that promotes both affordability and quality, but ensures that states take on a larger funding share over time.
Children who attend high-quality pre-K programs show improved academic achievement and are less likely to drop out of school, become teen parents, or be convicted of a crime later in life. But existing pre-K initiatives vary considerably in quality, and at an average cost of about $8,800 a year, high-quality private pre-K programs are out of reach for many families. Children in Latino families are much less likely than their peers to have access to affordable, high-quality pre-K.
“It’s about fairness – quality pre-K levels the playing field, especially for poor children, but it only works if parents can afford to enroll their kids,” said Lesley.
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The First Focus Campaign for Children is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization affiliated with First Focus, a bipartisan children’s advocacy organization. The Campaign for Children advocates directly for legislative change in Congress to ensure children and families are the priority in federal policy and budget decisions. For more information, visit www.ffcampaignforchildren.org.