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Democrats Aim to Expand Access for Pre-K During Senate ESEA Debate

Democrats will attempt to expand access to early-childhood education when the U.S. Senate begins debating a bipartisan rewrite of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act Tuesday.

Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., plans to offer an amendment that would create a five-year, federal-state partnership to expand and improve early-learning opportunities for children from birth to age 5.

Specifically, the amendment would provide $30 billion for high-quality, full-day preschool for 4-year-olds from families earning below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. States that already do that would be able to use funding to provide access to 3-year-olds.

States would provide the funding through subgrants to local entities, including school districts and Head Start programs or licensed child-care settings. In order to be eligible for the federal dollars, the pre-K programs would need to employ teachers with high qualifications that are paid comparably to K-12 teachers; have rigorous health and safety standards; have small class sizes and low child-to-staff ratios; and use evidence-based and developmentally appropriate instruction.

The amendment would also institute new Early Head Start and child-care partnerships aimed at improving the quality of child care for infants and toddlers through age 3.

In addition, the proposal would increase the authorization level for programs for infants and toddlers with disabilities and preschool grants for children with disabilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

If it sounds familiar, that's because it was previously introduced as a stand-alone bill by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., co-author of the ESEA rewrite, as well as in 2014 by then-Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa. Most recently, it was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives by Reps. Richard Hanna, R-N.Y., and Bobby Scott, D-Va. . Here's some additional background on Casey's amendment.

The proposal, which carries the hefty price tag and would require state matches, would be offset by closing a tax loophole known as inversion that allows some companies to avoid their share of taxes by incorporating in a foreign country. That's something Casey has been pushing for a few years now, though he hasn't wrangled much Republican support for the cause and isn't likely to now.

Murray made early-childhood education a priority for the reauthorization back in January. But the odds aren't exactly in Casey's favor as Republicans have been adamantly opposed to paying for things by closing tax loopholes in the past.

However, the underlying bill includes a couple of nods to the issue already, including the creation of a competitive-grant program to provide funding for states that propose to improve coordination, quality, and access for early-childhood education. In addition, the bill as written lists early education as an allowable use of funding for a broad swath of programs in the ESEA, and also requires states to align early-learning guidelines with their K-12 standards.

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