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Rural Infrastructure a Concern in Expanding Early-Childhood Ed.

President Barack Obama's budget proposes expanding early-childhood education, and some rural leaders say that investment needs to include money for facilities and infrastructure.

The U.S. Department of Education hosted a phone conference late last month for rural leaders on early-childhood education. Federal officials talked about a number of budget proposals, including the federal-state partnership to enable states to provide voluntary, universal high-quality preschool for 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families.

Two of the nearly 60 listeners brought up the need to be able to use federal money to provide space for preschool education. One of those was Jamie Palagi, a division administrator for the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. Some of her state's rural communities don't have a childcare provider, and school buildings aren't appropriate for young children, she said.

She encouraged federal officials to consider allowing states to use money to address facility needs, which often isn't allowed.

Another rural participant, Superintendent Kerry Boyd from Yukon Koyukuk School District in Fairbanks, Alaska, echoed Palagi's comments, saying schools don't always have space to provide needed programs, and the community doesn't necessarily have available or affordable facilities.

Steven Hicks, the Education Department's senior policy adviser for early learning, acknowledged those issues and said the universal preschool program proposal would allow states to use some of the money for quality improvements, and department officials are trying to figure out what might be permitted.

"It would be based on I think the needs of individual states and what they need to do to make sure that we reach all 4-year-olds," he said. "Our goal is to reach all 4-year-olds, so whatever it takes is what we need to be thinking about. So those suggestions about physical structures, modifying current structures, remodeling, building, and the transportation needs I think are really good ideas to consider."

John White, the department's deputy assistant secretary for rural outreach, also suggested that rural leaders who are looking for facilities funding go to the federal rural development office, which provides money for community facilities, including schools.

Participants raised other questions during the call, such as the feasibility of implementing research-based home-visitation programs in remote areas and how rural areas would generate any required match to receive federal money.

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