Looking Forward, Looking Back

December 21, 2016
Image courtesy of Creative Commons

Image courtesy of Creative Commons

By Jessica Landgraf

It is unclear what the next four years will hold for early childhood education. Whether the various initiatives and legislative changes made over the past eight years will be strengthened, defunded, or altered by Betsy DeVos is difficult to discern, at least given her prior work. So what is at stake? And what can states do to continue advancing the early childhood education agenda?

What is at Stake?

Below is a list of initiatives that President Obama supported and a brief description of their purposes.

Preschool for All Initiative: Provides federal funding for states to help four year olds in families at or below twice the poverty line gain access to high-quality preschool. The initiative implemented quality benchmarks for states which were tied to research on improved child level outcomes. Some benchmarks include providing qualified teachers in preschool classrooms, creating a plan for a comprehensive data and assessment system, and establishing state-level early learning standards.

Preschool Development Block Grants: A competitive grant program for states to improve, increase, and expand their preschool programs.

Child Care and Development Block Grant: A federal grant that was reauthorized and updated to improve childcare access and quality.

Head Start: The long standing program which aims to improve school readiness and well-being of children from low-income families, particularly in the last few months, has begun making big changes. These changes, coupled with a trend of increased funding, are the first major update to Head Start in over forty years.

Early Head Start – Child Care Partnerships: Grants that aim to increase partnerships between Early Head Start and local centers or family providers in order to provide full-day, full-year childcare and comprehensive support services to low-income families.

The Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting Program: This program provides assistance through resources and skill development for pregnant women and families who are considered “at-risk”. The program goals are to “improve maternal and child health, prevent child abuse and neglect, encourage positive parenting, and promote child development and school readiness.”

President Obama’s final budget for FY2017 is a culminating expression of his administration’s commitment to early childhood education. With almost $20 billion allocated for early childhood programs and services, including increases in funding for Preschool Development Block Grants, Child Care and Development Block Grants, and Head Start, this could be another step in the right direction. However, as this is the final budget from this administration, how long his legacy will last is largely up to the next administration.

What Will the Future Hold?

From President Elect Trump’s cabinet picks so far, there is little indication of what is in store for early childhood education over the next four years. However, his pick for the Department of Health and Human Services, Rep. Tom Price, has a history of supporting proposals for states to take over control of Head Start programs. This possible trend toward increased state-level control of its early childhood education programs could be a great opportunity for states to build on the changes that already been made over the last several years.

Many states have taken advantage of the recent grant opportunities by starting to strengthen early childhood program infrastructure and state-created early childhood quality standards and assessment systems. A recent article from the Center for American Progress outlines how governors can take executive action to improve early learning in their states, as summarized in the following table:

Theme Executive Action
Create a vision for early learning 1. Develop a statewide strategic plan
Convene groups to prioritize early learning 2. Establish task forces

3. Form a children’s cabinet

4. Appoint a business advisory committee

Raise public awareness about the importance of early learning 5. Lead a public awareness campaign on the need to support early learning

6. Promote the importance of quality

Create a governing structures that supports early learning 7. Create an office of early learning and encourage interagency coordination

8. Appoint an early learning advisor within the governor’s immediate office

Identify gaps between revenue and expenses for high-quality early learning programs 9. Conduct a cost of quality study

10. Align financial incentives with the actual cost of quality

11. Include increased funding for early learning in state budget

Maximize federal funding opportunities for early learning programs 12. Use Medicaid financing for home visiting programs

13. Initiate applications for federal funding competitions

Use data more effectively 14. Require interagency data collaboration and utilize data to map needs and tailor services

15. Develop a centralized intake system

Link providers to state early learning systems 16. Require all licensed providers to participate in the state QRIS (Quality Rating and Improvement System)

17. Maximize the effectiveness of workforce registries

While some suggestions on the table, such as maximizing federal funding opportunities for early learning programs, may not be possible under subsequent by the federal government, others hold more promise. Interagency coordination has already begun in some states as a result of the Early Head Start – Child Care Partnerships and Preschool for All initiatives, but creating a more integrated system to help parents navigate the resources available to them should be a priority in all states. Additionally, as noted in the table, using the data that is being collected to improve the availability and accessibility of care and services will be crucial to states’ ability to provide quality for all families.

As we move into 2017, let’s not forget the possibility of building on what we have already accomplished. The inability to anticipate the future doesn’t mean that we can’t move forward in the meantime. We have the evidence that the early years are crucial. We have years of experience and 50 states full of examples and experts. We just need to keep moving even if it ends up being against the tide.

Contact Jessica: landgr16@msu.edu