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Should Federal Policy Drive Early-Childhood Education?

What role should the federal government play in promoting early-childhood education? Two Washington-based think tanks have recently offered divergent perspectives on that question, with one suggesting that the U.S. Department of Education could use early childhood efforts as a method of school reform, and the other saying that the feds should get out of the business of funding preschool entirely.

The New America Foundation held a meeting Monday to support its contention that strong early-childhood education programs can help reverse the slide of struggling schools, and that federal policy needs to push districts in the direction of reaching out to these young learners. You can watch the program streaming at the previous link.

The discussion centered around what were described as promising results for young learners in three programs: the FirstSchool program, developed at the Frank Porter Graham Institute at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; the Washington-based Appletree Institute, which was awarded a federal Investing in Innovation grant so it could replicate its work, and the Community Learning Center Institute in Cincinnati, which includes early-childhood programs as part of its development of community schools. All three groups introduce children to early literacy and other academic building blocks that have them ready to learn by the time they reach kindergarten, their supporters say.

Laura Bornfreund, a senior policy analyst with the New America Foundation, said there are few mentions of early learning when it comes to turning around schools in the Education Department's School Improvement Grant program. She would like to see the department encourage or require schools and districts receiving school improvement dollars "to at least see what's happening with early learning." Without that prompting, principals may be tempted to focus only on the grades that are assessed, without looking at measures that could be implemented among younger children, she said.

But the Heritage Foundation offers a different take, using the federal government's own research into Head Start as a jumping-off point. In December, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released a study of nearly 5,000 children that showed any boost from the federally-funded program for low-income children faded by 3rd grade.

Heritage, in a paper released Jan. 10, accuses the federal government of attempting to bury the results by releasing them so close to Christmas. But the study clearly shows that the federal government "is a blunt instrument to effect school reform at any level," said Lindsey M. Burke, a Heritage Foundation fellow focusing on education policy.

"If we really wanted to help these low-income children, we would not be relegating them to these low-impact programs," Burke said in an interview. And even state-run preschool programs don't offer great results, she said. If the government insists on providing funding for preschool, the Heritage Foundation says those dollars should be portable, so that families can seek out private preschools of their choice.

Bornfreund says she supports a re-examination of the providers who are offering Head Start services, which the federal government is already doing. But she noted that children coming out of preschool need to go to strong elementary schools, too. The programs that her organization highlighted focused on improving preschool through 3rd grade. "It's not fair to say that it's all the responsibility of Head Start," she said.

As I'm still getting grounded in this beat, I'd love to hear from readers: Do you think that the federal government should have a role in preschool or promoting early childhood education programs through school improvement grants? Is the idea of portable preschool dollars a better way to go?

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