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Preschool Matters Today

Q&A: Federal Early Education Policy


January 20, 2017

Steve Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Education, was recently named among the nation’s 75 most influential university-based education scholars by Education Week.

Education Week recognized Dr. Barnett for his national leadership on issues of preschool quality and benefits of high-quality early learning opportunities and the influence of his research on public policy. This Q&A shares Dr. Barnett’s insights based on State(s) of Head Start, NIEER’s groundbreaking research report, for President Trump’s nominees for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Rep. Tom Price.

Q: In December 2016, you co-authored State(s) of Head Start the first report to describe and analyze in detail four key dimensions of the federal Head Start program state-by-state: enrollment, quality, duration, and funding. The report detailed wide variations in Head Start programs across the country. How should federal policymakers respond? 

Federal policy makers should convene a national panel of experts from the field that includes Head Start directors and state early childhood policy makers to develop a plan for more fully funding Head Start, to reduce bureaucratic burdens on providers, and to explore ways to better coordinate funding and services across local, state, and federal programs. For Early Head Start in particular attention should be given to prioritizing the children and families to be served, as funding is sufficient to reach less than 5 percent of those currently eligible.

Q: Head Start was designed to be responsive to local needs and priorities. However, NIEER’s research reveals state by-state variation inconsistent with national goals to meet the needs of every eligible child and family. How are the differences documented in State(s) of Head Start affecting children?

Inadequate funding produces disparate shortcomings in access, quality, and quantity around the country, not just desirable variations. As a result, many low-income children who are eligible can’t get into Head Start at all, with the problem much greater in some states than others. It also means that teachers and other staff are poorly paid, instructional quality can be low, and the hours and days that Head Start operates are far too limited. For children this translates into educational experiences that are too weak or limited in duration to produce substantive gains in learning and development that will meaningfully improve their school and life success.

Q: President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education Betsy Devos, an advocate of vouchers and charter schools serving K-12 students, has not commented on early childhood education. The nominee for Secretary of Health and Human Services, Rep. Tom Price, whose agency would run Head Start once sponsored legislation turning over funding and control to states as a pilot project. How do you envision early childhood education changing under their leadership?

One possibility is that they both introduce more market-oriented approaches to early childhood education coupled with a substantial reduction in federal regulation.  This could include increased use of vouchers and a greater reliance on private providers more generally. Depending on how these changes are implemented such changes could greatly improve or harm the children and families served. It all depends on adequate funding, maintaining a modest number of high standards, providing continuous improvement systems to support high performance, and holding providers accountable for results

Q: As an economist and research scholar, you have documented how high-quality early education prepares children for success in school and in life. Yet the cost of high-quality preschool leaves many children, especially the most vulnerable, without those learning opportunities. How should the new administration ensure every child has access to high-quality early education?

Going back to my earlier point, the administration should convene a bi-partisan commission or task force to conduct an evidence-based determination of how much funding is required, determine how this could best be raised from local, state, and federal sources, suggest ways to better coordinate and streamline public programs, and propose a plan for systematic pilot-testing and evaluation of new approaches.