Early childhood in line for more federal cash under tentative 2011 budget

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On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan offered a sort of
apology to early childhood advocates, many of whom have felt slighted
by his department’s lack of attention to birth-to-5 education.

On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan offered a sort of apology to early childhood advocates, many of whom have felt slighted by his department’s lack of attention to birth-to-5 education.

He also pledged to improve.

“The area where our department has played around the edges, has not really done enough, is in early-childhood education,” Duncan said. “If everything goes well in Washington tomorrow, that’s going to change. We want to play in the early-childhood space in a way we never have.”

Duncan, speaking at the annual luncheon for the advocacy group Ounce of Prevention Fund, was touting the tentative reauthorization of the Race to the Top grant competition. He says that it will become a key lever for early childhood expansion and quality improvement in the coming years.

The long fight over the fiscal year 2011 federal budget could end this week, and Congress’ tentative budget deal includes a $700 million replay of the competitive Race to the Top program. A significant portion of the money – it has not yet been determined how much – is expected to be used for early childhood education.

Draft language in the bill is similar to that in the long-defunct Early Learning Challenge Fund legislation, known as “Race to the Top for early childhood,” which would give states competitive grants to support early childhood programs.

However, the funding – which is not yet certain – would still be a far cry from the administration’s earlier grand plans for the Early Learning Challenge Fund, which was to be a 10-year, $10-billion funding stream.

“It feels awesome… (but) the ink is not dry,” said Cornelia Grumman, executive director of the First Five Years Fund.

Duncan also touted federal changes in the rules governing Head Start programs that will require many providers to re-compete for their funding, “not just increasing slots, but increasing quality.”

In his speech, Duncan also noted the importance of having high-quality teachers in the early childhood field.

“We have to think about early-childhood educators as a true profession,” Duncan said, with better compensation and rewards for performance. “If this is seen as glorified babysitting, we’re not going to give our babies the slots we need.”

He also stressed the need for “open, honest conversations about which programs are making the biggest difference.”

Duncan is also trying to raise awareness among governors that school districts can use Title I funding for early-childhood education.

He called it “penny-wise and pound-foolish” to cut early childhood and eliminate full-day preschool and kindergarten programs due to budget cuts, and said his department is advising governors on other ways to save money. “We will do everything we can to incentivize behavior (that is) headed where we need to go,” Duncan said.

However, a requirement that districts set aside a portion of their Title I money for early education programs – which CPS Chief Early Childhood Education Officer Barbara Bowman has long pushed him for – isn’t coming any time soon.

“When you talk to superintendents around the country, what they’re looking for is more flexibility, not less,” Duncan said. “In exchange for that high bar, I want to give them room to move.”