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Early-Education Bill Reintroduced in the House, But Prospects Still Grim

Washington

Members of Congress have resurrected a legislative plan to expand early-childhood education programs for children birth through 5 years of age, but they don't expect it to get very far despite it having some bipartisan support.

Reps. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Richard Hanna, R-N.Y., along with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and 19 other Senate Democratic co-sponsors, introduced the Strong Start for America's Children Act Tuesday. The measure was originally proposed in 2013 and relies on a federal-state partnership. 

But the hefty price tag attached to the proposal—roughly $75 billion over 10 years—will likely be a non-starter for most Republicans in both chambers.

"I don't see it working out differently," Hanna conceded during a roundtable discussion with reporters Tuesday, alluding to the legislation's introduction and swift death during the last go-around.

"I think the dynamics are the same. Republicans are still focused on debt and the deficit," he said. "I would prefer to focus on the opportunity of this. We should embrace that not as an expense but as an investment."

So what would the bill do?

Ideally, here's how it would work:

Federal funding would be directed to states via a formula for high-quality, full-day prekindergarten for 4-year-olds from families earning below 200 percent of the federal poverty level (that's approximately $31,860 for a family of two; $40,180 for a family of four). States would be required to provide matching funds. In turn, states would give subgrants to local districts for prekindergarten programs that emphasize:

  • Teachers with high qualifications;
  • Rigorous health and safety standards;
  • Small class sizes and low child-to-staff ratios;
  • Instruction that is based in evidence and is developmentally appropriate;
  • Evidence-based child-staff comprehensive services for children, including strong parent and family engagement, nutritious meals, and health screening and referrals.

In addition, the bill would direct Early Head Start to partner with local child-care programs and family child-care homes serving infants and toddlers in order to increase the quality of the programs through training and technical assistance.

The bill would also increase the authorization level for early-childhood services for students with disabilities through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

This isn't the first time Scott and Hanna have teamed up on the issue. Back in March, the two hosted an early-childhood education panel that focused on the return on investment of pre-K programs.

And Hanna, in particular, has been the lead Republican sponsor of the bill since it was first introduced in 2013 by then-Rep. George Miller, D-Calif. (That was the same year President Barack Obama unveiled a $75 billion universal pre-K plan that he proposed paying for with a tax hike on tobacco.)

So what are the bill's chances? Not very good.

During the last go-around, the bill only garnered the support of three Republicans in the House and didn't make it further than its introduction. In the Senate, which was held by Democrats at the time, the bill was cleared through the education committee on a party-line vote and never brought to the floor.

But there has been a lot of interest by both parties to address early-childhood education, though their big-picture plans are vastly different. In general, Democrats would like to increase federal funding for pre-K programs, while most Republicans would prefer to evaluate the millions of dollars the government already spends on programs like Head Start and make them more effective.

Scott told reporters that the two are not mutually exclusive. Head Start, he argued, is specifically designed to help low-income families, and much of the funding for the program is spent on nutrition, vaccinations, and other health and social service needs. The new legislative proposal is intended to be more inclusive and designed to help families that may not need the additional services Head Start provides, he said.

Early-childhood education has also been sucked into congressional efforts to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, with the administration and Democrats demanding it be addressed in the legislative overhaul. While language addressing early ed wasn't included in the House reauthorization proposal, it was in a bipartisan deal brokered by Sens. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., and Patty Murray, D-Wash. So that may provide an easier path for some type of pre-K legislation. 

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