Time might be running out for advocates of early childhood programs to see some sort of new investment in a fund to help states improve their programs, a priority for the Democratic administration and members of both parties in the Democratic-For-Now Congress.
A group of House lawmakers, including both Democrats and Republicans, has sent a letter to Rep. David Obey, the chairman of the House Appropriations panel that oversees K-12 spending, and Rep. Todd Tiahart of Kansas, the top Republican, asking them to pretty please support a $300 million investment in early childhood programs already approved by Senate lawmakers.
The Senate Appropriations Committee passed a bill last summer that would provide the money for a new Early Learning Challenge Fund. It's unclear if the House version includes the language because the House subcommittee that oversees education spending is keeping its bill, also approved over the summer, under lock and key for some still-strangely undisclosed reason. But the early learning money isn't in a highlights table that the committee has on its website. My guess is that if the money was in the bill they'd brag about it there.
The letter was sent by Reps. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, and Vernon Ehlers, R-Mich. It includes the signatures of 110 House members, including five Republicans (other than Ehlers).
Here's a snippet from the letter explaining just what the Early Learning Challenge Fund would do and why lawmakers think it's so important:
And just last week, Secretary of Education told a bunch of edu-stakeholders that he'd like to see $300 million for early childhood programs. So that's one more high profile advocate to join the House lawmakers.
The Early Learning Challenge Fund will promote an effective early childhood workforce, parental involvement, data-based decision-making, early learning standards, and a program quality rating system. The Early Learning Challenge Fund will provide supports for programs across all early childhood education settings, including Head Start, state-funded pre-kindergarten, IDEA Part C, Child Care and Development Block Grants, and other early childhood programs. The Early Learning Challenge Fund will leverage investments from state and local governments, philanthropy, and the private sector, with a focus on quality and alignment of infrastructure between and among these programs.
Why the urgency? Well, it's still unclear what a Republican majority in either chamber would do when it comes to early childhood education, but the GOP has made no secret of the fact that they would like to hold down spending if it takes power. That means the chances of a brand new program making its way into spending bills next year are slim, even if it addresses an issue folks in both parties care about.
Early childhood advocates must be bummed because the Obama administration was supposed to be their big moment. On the campaign trail, the president said he wanted to invest a whopping $10 billion in programs for kids birth to age five, from home-visiting services for at-risk moms to prekindergarten.
The Obama administration originally tried to finance the Early Learning Challenge fund through a bill making major changes to the student lending program. But the program was stripped out at the eleventh hour because there just wasn't enough money.
A lot will hinge on the results of the election next week, but the $300 million passed by the Senate Appropriations Committee over the summer could be the last, best hope for a federal investment in early childhood for a long, long time.