Rx for President Obama’s Early Learning Budget: Tie it Firmly to Education Reform

Although I have long championed a big boost in the federal commitment for early care and education, I have a major concern with the FY 2011 early care and education budget increases President Obama proposed this week. The funding increases the president proposes for FY2011 are, if nothing else, big. They include:

• A $1.6 billion increase in the Child Care and Development Block Grant for a new total of $6.65 billion. That’s the biggest increase that program has seen in decades. Some $800 million of that would not require a state match.
• A $989 million increase for Head Start and Early Head Start, for a new total of $8.2 billion.
• Somewhere in the neighborhood of $9 billion over 10 years for a new Early Learning Challenge Fund (ELCF) that would make competitive grants to states to improve the quality of early learning programs to help children enter kindergarten ready to succeed. (This has not yet passed in the Senate, perhaps because it depends on savings in student loan costs that are being fought by business interests.)
• $450 million for a restructured literacy program the details of which are not yet available.

The President’s commitment to early care and education in tough budget year is admirable. Assuming the Early Learning Challenge Fund passes, we could be looking at a $4 billion expansion of resources in the coming year — and that’s before we take into account the President’s doubling of the child care tax credit! So why am I concerned?

I worry that the new spending will be effective only if it is accompanied by serious reforms. Recent studies find that child care subsidies mostly move children from informal to formal care and have little or no effect on maternal employment. Yet, the quality of subsidized care in the United States is so low that child development may not be improved and might even be harmed. Early Head Start and Head Start produce positive results for children, but are nowhere near good enough. Of course, it doesn’t have to be that way; we can give children better programs.

If child care and Head Start are to receive more money, I would urge it be tied to higher standards, incentives for better performance, and accountability. This is the Obama Administration prescription for education reform (as I read it), and one the ELCF is designed to bring into the birth to five realm. If these new dollars are to be used effectively, the ELCF must be part of the package. And, I would encourage Congress to go even further. Tie new child care and Head Start funds to new requirements for competition, higher standards, accountability. That, combined with rigorous evaluation, can ensure our children truly benefit from these significant new investments.

Steve Barnett
Co-Director, NIEER

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