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Federal Early Childhood Policy Needs to Fix Existing Programs

My colleague Andy Rotherham has a new TIME column looking at early childhood education and the cuts that states have been making in pre-k in recent years. Andy doesn't mention it, but states have also made sharp cuts in childcare funding, which enables low-income parents to work and helps some of their children attend preschool.

These trends highlight an odd irony in federal early childhood policy in recent years--on the one hand, early childhood advocates in D.C. are ecstatic that the U.S. Department of Education has allocated a share of this year's Race to the Top funds for a second round of Early Learning Challenge Grants. ELC is primarily focused on building state infrastructure to improve early childhood quality--an important goal. But there's a real question about the net impact of the these infrastructure investments in an environment where states are cutting funds for services to children.

Andy calls for new federal pre-k investments to leverage state pre-k investments and expand access. It's a good idea (and one I've written about in the past). But the reality is that the feds already do invest a great deal of money--although not enough--in early childhood programs, and the foremost priority for federal early childhood policies should be reforming those programs to make them work as well as possible for kids. The administration has taken significant positive steps to strengthen Head Start quality and impacts, but there is still plenty of work to be done to maximize the impact of this program for school readiness. Similarly, federal child care subsidies, which haven't been reauthorized since welfare reform, are in desperate need of rethinking and reform to better prioritize and support child development. Designing new policies and programs, whether ELC or pre-k, is a lot easier than fixing the problems with the current system, but if we just layer new programs on top of a fragmented and inefficient system, we'll miss important opportunities.

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