Pre-K Goes to Washington

President Obama launched early childhood education into the national spotlight in February when in his State of the Union address he proposed “working with states to make high-quality preschool available to every child in America.” Since then, the early education field has been debating best practices, funding models, and making sure the mainstream media accurately presents the compelling research case for pre-K. The White House has been largely mum on plan details, though its fact sheet, the President’s education speech in Georgia, and recent remarks from White House advisor Roberto Rodriguez have offered some clues. While the President’s plan is more of an outline than a detailed proposal, it does focus on a few key components:

  • A plan to implement comprehensive data and assessment systems,
  • Small class sizes and low staff to child ratios,
  • Qualified teachers for all preschool classrooms, and
  • Well-trained teachers who are paid comparably to K-12 staff.

The proposal has not gone unnoticed on Capitol Hill, where several early learning bills have been introduced in both the Senate and the House of Representatives to improve the quality of and access to early childhood education for 4-year-olds. Funds would be channeled through state-designated agencies to subgrantees who would provide the actual services.

Three recently introduced bills call for a closer reading:

  • The Prepare All Kids Act (S. 502) introduced by Senator Bob Casey (D-PA);
  • The Ready to Learn Act (S.322) introduced by Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) and co-sponsored by Al Franken (D-MN), Mark Begich (D-AK), Mazie Hirono (D-HI); and
  • The Providing Resources Early for Kids Act of 2013, or PRE-K Act, introduced by Senator Mazie Hirono (D-HI) (S.519) cosponsored by Mark Begich (D-AK), Benjamin Cardin (D-MD), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Al Franken (D-MN), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Tim Johnson (D-SD), Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), Patty Murray (D-WA), Brian Schatz (D-HI), Charles Schumer (D-NY), and Ron Wyden (D-OR). Companion legislation was introduced in the House (H.R. 1041) by Representative Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) and cosponsored by Representative Allyson Schwartz (D-PA).

The plans agree on several points, such as requiring comprehensive early learning standards (defined by the National Education Goals Panel as physical well-being/motor development, social/emotional development, approaches toward learning, language development, and cognition/general knowledge) as well as requiring states to use these federal funds to “supplement, not supplant” existing state funds for early learning. Each plan also addresses those key aspects of the White House proposal in slightly different ways:


Prepare All Kids (S. 502)

Ready to Learn Act (S. 322)

Providing Resources Early for Kids Act of 2013 (PRE-K Act) (S.519/H.R. 1041)

Class Size



Nationally established “best practice”

Staff-Child Ratio

1:10 ratio

1:10 ratio

Nationally established “best practice”

Teacher Credentials

Defined as having a BA with specialization in ECE or early childhood development; or  teacher is working toward degree

within 6 years of beginning employment as teacher in a provider assisted under this program

Within 2 years of grant, each classroom must have teacher with BA in ECE or specialized training in early childhood development

Teacher holds AA or higher in early childhood or related field; Plan to require state-funded pre-K program teachers to hold a BA (in ECE or related) within 5 years of receiving funds

Early Learning Standards




Provision for Private Provider Inclusions

35% of subgrantees must be CBOs

25% of subgrants to CBOs

Funds must be made available to range of programs, including LEAs and community-based providers

Fed/State Share



Non-federal matching funds at least 30% of federal grant funds for “Qualified States,” 50% for “Selected States”


Cannot lead to rewards or sanctions for individual children, teachers, programs, or schools; Single assessment cannot be used as sole method for assessing effectiveness

Program’s curriculum must use “valid and reliable multiple assessments for the purpose of improving instruction”

Funds in act may not be used for assessments that provide rewards or sanctions for teachers or students (no high stakes)

The Prepare All Kids Act also calls for a 15 percent set aside of funding for programs for children ages 0 to 3, while the PRE-K Act calls for 10 percent set aside for quality improvement in programs for children these ages. While media attention of President Obama’s early childhood plan has largely centered on the components offering preschool to 4-year-olds, children ages 0 to 3 were addressed through Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership programs.

These requirements seem like good news for most programs with state-funded pre-K programs. As indicated in NIEER’s annual State Preschool Yearbook, from the 2001-2002 to 2010-2011 school year, state-funded pre-K programs made particular progress in meeting the NIEER quality standards in the areas of class size and ratio, lead teacher requirements, and early learning standards.

benchmarks over time

Clearly, the percent of programs requiring teachers to have a bachelor’s degree has lagged considerably with only 57 percent of programs meeting this standard. However, provisions in each of the three congressional bills give programs some time to raise teacher credentialing to this level. Twenty-four programs already meet all of the requirements of these proposals regarding program standards as indicated in NIEER’s latest State Preschool Yearbook. Though these would not be the sole qualifying factors for receiving federal funds, it appears that almost 50 percent of pre-K programs are already on the right track from Congress’ point of view.

Pre-K has also found itself a more modest place in the Continuum of Learning Act of 2013 (H.R.791) as introduced by Representative Jared Polis (D-CO) and Don Young (R-AK), with Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), Jim McDermott (D-WA), and Allyson Schwartz (D-PA) joining as co-sponsors after the bill was introduced. While the bill was introduced shortly after the President’s State of the Union pre-K proposal, it does not outline a new pre-K program but rather builds early learning more explicitly into the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The Continuum of Learning Act focuses primarily on improving early learning guidelines; encouraging local education agencies (LEAs) to utilize school improvement funds to provide early education programs; and promote professional development, especially through providing joint training between early education and elementary teachers.

Introducing bills in committee still leaves early learning far from the President’s desk, but the number of plans focusing on high-quality early childhood education at the federal level represents a heartening commitment to the future of kids.

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER


  1. Thank you for your analysis! I’ have looked at 2 of the proposed bills and there seems to be no mention of the Territories. I encourage all in their advocacy efforts as legislation moves forward to include the children of the US Territories – they are US citizens and should be afforded the same opportunities to reach their potential.

    • Hi Ellie,

      Thanks for your comment. We agree that all children should be given the same opportunities to access a high-quality preschool program. Unfortunately, we have found that not a lot of data exists on public preschool in U.S. territories, which may be why the bills do not explicitly mention them. Hopefully more data – and more funding – will become available to promote and expand preschool education in U.S. territories.


      • Eleanor Hirsh on

        I would be happy to provide any data that is available concerning early childhood in the US Virgin Islands. My understanding is that the proposed legislation Is not about access to data, but rather ensuring that children get the best possible services to ensure positive outcomes and success. Ellie

        • Hi Ellie,

          Yes, you are correct that the proposed legislation is about funding, not access to data. But to ensure that federal funds are spent on high-quality programs, data is needed on the current state of pre-K in each state – or in this case, territory – to know if certain quality standards are being met.


          • I understand that data is important. From what I was able to glean from the proposed legislation, state funding is not necessarily dependent on data, yet states will potentially have access to funding. My concern is that the territories are not even given an opportunity because we are not mentioned, no matter how much data we may have or what efforts we have made to improve quality. Let us know what data is necessary for us o be included in the legislation, My experience is that if we are not included in the outset – when the legislation is written – we will never be included and the door will be closed. In a few short years, the US Virgin Islands has been making great strides to improve the quality of care and education for young children. We know there is still much work to be done. We want to be provided with the same opportunities for our children to succeed.

          • While federal funding for public pre-K programs is not necessarily dependent on data, it is likely necessary for states to show their progress in order to qualify for that funding, hence how data comes into play. We suggest that you contact these legislators directly for more details on how they intend to proceed, such as whether territories will be eligible for this funding.


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