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Bipartisan ESEA Rewrite Likely to Strengthen Early Education

Cross-posted from Politics K-12.

During Tuesday's Senate education committee markup of the bipartisan Elementary and Secondary Education Act rewrite, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the ranking member and co-author of the bill, will offer an amendment to strengthen early-childhood education--and it looks like she has the Republican support needed to do so.

The amendment would create a competitive-grant program to provide funding for states that propose to improve coordination, quality, and access for early-childhood education. States would apply for three-year grants and provide matching funds to support "sustainable improvements and better coordination" of their early-learning and care systems.

The measure plays to Republican sensibilities by allowing states to better coordinate federal education programs that already exist, including Head Start and the Child Care Development Block Grant and  Preschool Development Grant programs. Republicans have argued that overlap across the various federal, state, and local early-childhood programs has made it difficult for the programs to be effective.

Indeed, last month Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the education committee and co-author of the ESEA rewrite, said that the $22 billion that the federal government spends on early-education programs is fragmented, stuck in unworkable silos, and often ineffective, and that he'd rather find a way to better coordinate all of them than create an entirely new pre-K program.

The amendment will be offered with the support of Republican Sens. Johnny Isakson of Georgia and Mark Kirk of Illinois, likely giving it the bipartisan support it needs to clear any hurdles. Georgia, in particular, has been making a high-profile push to increase access to pre-K programs and won $51.7 million through the Obama administration's Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grant to do so. It used that money, in part, to create customized early-learning programs for geographic areas with large numbers of high-need children. 

"Republican and Democratic governors and lawmakers across the country already recognize the importance of preschool investments, and it's time for Congress to catch up," said Murray in a statement. "My bipartisan amendment will help us expand access to high quality early childhood education, so more kids start kindergarten with a strong foundation for success in school and in the future. I'm hopeful it will get strong support in committee and that we can build on this kind of progress as the work to fix No Child Left Behind continues."

The underlying Alexander-Murray legislative compromise already gives a nod to early-childhood education, which has been a big priority for Democrats and especially Murray and the Obama administration, by listing it as an allowable use of funding for a broad swath of programs in the ESEA. The base bill also requires states to align early learning guidelines with their K-12 standards.

The competitive grant would take that one step further. According to a one-page backgrounder about the amendment, here are the ways the states can use funding from the grant to increase access to early learning:

  • Improve coordination of existing funds for early-childhood education, ensuring that each federal and state dollar is used more efficiently;
  • Target resources to low- and moderate-income families;
  • Increase the quality of existing early learning and child care;
  • Develop a plan to expand access to early-childhood programs that exhibit high program quality;
  • Prioritize funding for improving quality and access in rural areas;
  • Disseminate best practices for combining or coordinating funding, as well as program quality;
  • Support programming for infants and toddlers, as well as preschool-age children
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