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Lawmakers Eye Early Childhood Expansion

Prekindergarten is the hottest issue under the sun these days, ever since President Barack Obama made it a focal point of his State of the Union address, then released the bare bones of a plan to expand prekindergarten access to more low-income 4-year-olds. On the heels of the announcement, some folks in Congress released legislation aimed at expanding access to early childhood education programs. The measures include:

•A bill by Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee who has been interested in early childhood education issues for quite some time, put forth a bill that sounds like it's got a lot in common with some of the administration's ideas to expand early learning. For one thing, it has a similar goal—providing high-quality prekindergarten to low-income families—although Casey would add a focus on kids with special needs.

Under Casey's legislation, programs would have to meet certain quality standards—for instance, classes would be limited to 20 children or less, with a student-teacher ratio of 10-to-one or less. And prekindergarten teachers would have to earn bachelor degrees within six years. Much more about the legislation here.

•A bill by Democratic Sens. Patty Murray of Washington, Al Franken of Minnesota, Mark Begich of Alaska, and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii that would offer competitive grants to states to establish and operate high-quality prekindergarten programs. The bill, which was also introduced in the previous session of Congress, would help governors who want to expand on pre-existing early childhood education systems run by schools, child care centers, Head Start programs, and other providers. Way more here.

•Many of the same senators, plus Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, have introduced another bill that would help parents get access to more information about early childhood programs by setting up a toll-free referral line and website.

•A bill by Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, that would expand access to prekindergarten programs through a federal-state partnership (like Casey's bill, that's similar to the administration's general approach.) States that are already operating good preschool programs could get money to boost quality and serve more kids. And other states could apply for start-up funding to get new preschool programs going within two years. The money could help states train teachers, extend program time, and offer extra services to kids, such as health screenings and meals.

So far, the administration hasn't released very many details of what's actually in the plan to significantly ramp up access to early childhood education for nation's 4-year-olds, beyond that it would be a state-federal partnership, and that kids in poverty would be covered, while states would get incentives to add additional middle class kids. And my colleague Lesli Maxwell of District Dossier fame recently found out that the programs would be full day, not just part-time. More here.

Will any of this actually come to fruition in Brokedown Congress, which can't even get itself together to avert cuts that everyone hates? We'll just have to see.

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