Federal Incentives Can Grow Preschool

Investing in Success Starts Early

Every dollar spent on early childhood education yields a $7 return on investment. High-quality pre-kindergarten pays for itself within nine years. Participation in high-quality early learning programs can significantly contribute to closing academic achievement gaps. A better educated workforce is a more productive and globally competitive workforce, especially when many other countries guarantee access to quality pre-school for the majority of young children.

These are just some of the arguments for increased access to high quality preschool that Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-NY) and Robert Casey (D-PA) cited in an event Wednesday at a Center for American Progress Action Fund event titled “The Push for Quality Pre-School Education.” The senators are sponsors of two new bills aimed at creating national and state partnerships to improve access to and quality of early childhood education.  Both proposals promote universal, high-quality pre-school but begin by targeting low-income children who too often do not participate in quality early childhood education programs.

John Podesta, president and CEO of the Center, opened the session by pointing out that we need to think about comprehensive early care and family support from birth to kindergarten if we are to successfully close educational achievement gaps that too frequently begin before children even start school. 

Clinton, a longtime advocate for early childhood development and education, cited further statistics to prove that the evidence has finally caught up with the advocacy on the need for quality preschool education:

  • Nearly 50 percent of all kindergarten teachers report that at least half of their students come to school with problems that hinder their success.
  • Each year, more than 200,000 children repeat kindergarten.
  • Children who are not at least modestly skilled readers by the end of third grade are unlikely to graduate from high school.

Clinton also spoke to the overwhelming evidence that early childhood education provides the foundation for success later in childhood. Children who attend high-quality pre-school programs are less likely to be held back a grade or to need special education, and are more likely to graduate from high school. They also earn more as adults and are less likely to become dependent on welfare or involved in crime.

Clinton’s Ready to Learn Act would create a new title under the federal No Child Left Behind Act to fund early childhood educational opportunities for four-year-olds, giving priority to children from low-income and households with limited English. The bill would provide competition-based grants to states to improve the quality of preschool programs, expand access to a greater number of children, and build on existing partnerships with community-based providers. These programs will be required to have qualified teachers; low child-teacher ratios; and developmentally, culturally, and linguistically appropriate curriculum.

Casey’s legislation, the Prepare All Kids Act, would make high-quality, full-day preschool available and affordable for families for at least one year prior to kindergarten.  This bill supports participation in pre-kindergarten for children ages three to five and would provide children in families at or below 200 percent of the poverty line with free pre-kindergarten.

The bill also creates set-asides for early learning programs for children from birth to three and expands programs so that they are full-day while also allowing for extended-year programs. In addition, the bill calls for qualified teachers, low child-teacher ratios, curriculum that is research- and evidence-based, and curriculum that is developmentally appropriate and designed to support learning.

Both bills clearly recognize the need for greater investment in high-quality early learning programs and use incentives for states to expand access and improve the quality of programming. Each bill requires a state funding match and appreciates the quilt of services that states knit to support young children and their families.

Casey affirmed the responsibility of us all to keep the bright light of potential burning inside each child. A former fifth-grade teacher, Casey was a fierce advocate for early childhood education in his time in the Pennsylvania state government. As state auditor general, he uncovered a $400 million stockpile of child care and other funds for low-income working families.

Both senators noted that preparing children to learn from early childhood onward was not simply a moral issue predicated on equal opportunity and the value society places on its children. In addition, they hoped that the economic benefit of investing in children would be an attractive incentive to the business community to get involved financially. Both said the Business Roundtable has been especially engaged in the early education movement.

The bills were welcome news to the panel of experts and advocates that followed the senators’ speeches. Libby Doggett, Ph.D., executive director of Pre-K Now, discussed the “incredible moment in which we find ourselves: with an unprecedented level of support for pre-k at the state level that has ‘trickled up’ to the national level.”

Describing national victories for early education advocates, she noted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-CA) first-ever National Summit on America’s Children in May that featured a detailed conversation about the benefits of early investments in the nation’s children; House and Senate versions of the Higher Education Act that include student loan relief to students who become pre-kindergarten teachers; and the reauthorization of Head Start that will increase the number of Head Start teachers with bachelor’s degrees.

Noting the great progress made at the state level in early childhood education, Doggett said that from fiscal year 2005 to fiscal year 2007, state funding increased from $2.9 billion to $4.2 billion and 29 governors proposed increases for preschool in their “state of the state” speeches, compared with just 11 governors three years earlier.

Other successes from around the country include:

  • New York’s enacted state budget for 2007-2008 includes an increase of $146 million for universal pre-kindergarten, bringing total funding for the state to $438 million in 2007-08.
  • The Iowa legislature passed a plan to provide a voluntary pre-kindergarten program to provide quality public preschool to 90 percent of the state’s four-year-olds within four years.
  • North Carolina’s legislature recently approved funding for Gov. Mike Easley’s plan to add 10,000 children to that state’s More at Four preschool program.

Doggett also praised Pennsylvania’s structural and financial reforms that ended with a $75 million increase in pre-school appropriations.

Harriet Ditcher, the deputy secretary of Pennsylvania’s Office of Child Development and Early Learning under the Pennsylvania Departments of Education and Public Welfare, emphasized that while the increased federal funding was an important element in the early childhood education movement, the two bills presented by Clinton and Casey should not be seen as a “silver bullet.” Instead, a comprehensive approach is needed. Education for parents about the importance of schooling and fostering a learning environment, in particular, are key to creating the best possible situation in which a child can learn.  She described Pennsylvania’s several programs for young children, including a new $75 million pre-school program that gets underway this fall.

Carol Brunson Day, President of the National Black Child Development Institute, also emphasized a more thorough and encompassing approach to early education. She stressed that the progress made by advocates for early childhood education should be fully connected throughout K-12 education, as the improved results must be held, consolidated, and taken advantage of throughout a child’s education.  Brunson Day’s remarks highlighted the need for greater attention to providing nothing but the highest quality programs for our nation’s lowest-income children, and the need for programs, curricula, and teachers that exercise a great deal of cultural competency.

In closing, she reiterated the event’s overarching theme: that universal access to early childhood education is a must, that it is not just a state responsibility to provide it, and that we must improve the quality of early childhood education while expanding it to more children in order to make a significant difference in the lives of our youngsters.

For more on this event, please see: