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House Lawmakers Weigh Federal Role in Early-Childhood Education

President Barack Obama's marquee, multibillion-dollar proposal to entice states to expand their prekindergarten offerings—which already was a political long shot—hit yet another roadblock Wednesday during a House Education and the Workforce Committee hearing.

But, in what may be a sort of consolation prize to early-childhood advocates, the long-stalled reauthorization of another program for the youngest children—the Child Care and Development Block Grant program—may see fresh momentum.

Rep. John Kline, R-Minn., the chairman of the panel, said that Congress first needs to get a handle on the myriad of early-childhood education programs—45 across the federal government, according to a report released Wednesday by the Government Accountability Office—before creating a brand-new, multibillion-dollar program.

 "Many federal early-care and education programs are in need of serious review," Kline said at the hearing. "This should be our first priority, not rubber-stamping a 46th federal program."

The president's proposal, which would provide federal matching grants to encourage states to expand pre-K, already was on thin political ice. Its high price tag—more than $30 billion over the first five years of implementation—has made it a tough sell in a Congress consumed with holding down spending. Just Tuesday, the second-highest-ranking official at the U.S. Department of Education expressed skepticism that it would be enacted anytime soon.

Still, the proposal will continue to fuel the debate on the right role for the federal government in helping to improve and expand early-childhood programs. It's been introduced as legislation by Rep. George Miller of California, the top Democrat on the House education committee, and Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the Senate education committee. In fact, it's a top priority for Harkin, who, along with Miller, is leaving Congress after this year. Harkin's committee is holding a hearing on his bill Thursday, and he'd like to get it on the floor of the Senate soon.

As discussions of the early-childhood legislation continue on Capitol Hill, expect Republicans to keep citing the new GAO report. The GAO, Congress' investigative arm, found that there are 45 programs across the federal government that have some sort of early learning or child care focus. A dozen of these programs are specifically geared toward early learning—the rest simply have it as a focus or allowable use of funds. The programs' total about $13 billion in federal funding anually, according to the GAO, and range in size from the roughly $8 billion Head Start program, which finances early-childhood education for low-income children, to a patchwork of much smaller programs, each funded at $500 million or less.

Kay E. Brown, the director of education, workforce, and income security issues at the GAO, who testified at the hearing, said such a broad network of programs could lead to both duplication and service gaps. Another witness—Grover J. "Russ" Whitehurst, a senior fellow and director of Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution—went much further, calling the number of individual programs  a waste of effort and money.  

"The current system, a mishmash of 45 separate, incoherent, and largely ineffective programs, fails to serve the broader public and is certainly less than optimal for the children and families to which it is directed," he said.

But Miller dismissed that argument. The smaller federal childhood education programs are specifically tailored to meet the needs of particular populations, such as children with autism, or children on Native American reservations, he said.

"You can't keep fooling around that these are duplicative," he said. And he noted that the two biggest federal early-childhood education programs—Head Start and the Child Care and Development Block Grant program, or CCDBG—aren't coming close to meeting demand. He said that everyone agrees that early-childhood education is important, but that "one party just can't step up to provide the resources to do it."

In her testimony, Harriet Dichter, the executive director of the Delaware Office of Early Learning, echoed that argument.

"The federal government has not been sufficiently proactive in this area, leaving much too much to the states to do," she said. "We can't do it by ourselves. [The Child Care and Development Block Grant program] and Head Start are not sufficient."

So what's next? In remarks kicking off the hearing, Kline signaled that, while the Miller-Harkin legislation may not have much of a shot in the House, he's ready to get moving on the CCDBG reauthorization, which might be a smart move political move.  For one thing, it gives Congress a chance to show that it also cares about early learning—an issue that's beginning to garner broad bipartisan backing across states. And, since the block grants wouldn't be a brand new program, requiring brand new federal dollars, there's potential for bipartisan cooperation.

Plus, arguably, the Senate education committee has already helped to pave the way, developing an honest-to-goodness bipartisan bill that would refocus the program on quality, not just access. A bill reauthorizing the block grant program sailed through the Senate committee earlier this summer, (Cheat sheet here.) Harkin has said he thinks that legislation is positioned to move to the floor of the Senate soon.

Kline said the Senate bill "includes several common-sense provisions that will help empower parents and improve coordination" among federal early-childhood education programs.  He's not sure, however, on a time frame for moving on the bill, he told me in a quick interview after the hearing.

Kline also said he'd like to move on reauthorization of the Head Start Act, which was last renewed in 2007, after a long, partisan slog.

Unrelated tidbit for you inside baseball fans: Kline also told me he wants to continue in his role as chairman of the House education panel after this Congress. It's unclear whether or not he'll need a waiver to stay in his post; he's talking to the House Republican steering committee—a group of GOP leaders that determines which lawmakers sit on which panels—about next steps.  

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