U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the senior Republican on the Senate education committee, urged Congress to fully implement the 200 Head Start Centers of Excellence it previously authorized in 2007, saying “the question is not whether, but how best to make early childhood education available to the largest possible number of children in order to give them more of an equal opportunity.”
The senator delivered his remarks at a hearing of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. He said Washington should give states additional flexibility to pool existing federal, state and local funds to improve their early childhood education programs, such as through the 200 Head Start Centers of Excellence around the country, instead of falling back “into the familiar Washington pattern” of creating mandates and making states pay for the federal government’s promises.
In questions to witnesses following his opening statement, the senator discussed how to improve the Head Start Centers of Excellence, and other ways for states to have more autonomy and resources in making decisions about education. For example in Tennessee, the senator said, Medicaid spending has gone from 8 percent of the state budget when he was governor to 30 percent of the state budget today.
Alexander said, “When we look down the road 10 years and see mandatory entitlement spending going up 80 percent, that squeezes out of the federal budget and the state budget the dollars that we’d like to invest in education, including early childhood education.”
“I was an early learner when it comes to the value of early childhood education. For 35 years, my mother operated a preschool program in a converted garage in our backyard in Maryville, Tennessee. She had nowhere else to put me when I was a child, so I must be the only United States senator who spent five years in kindergarten.
In the 1960s, she persuaded my father, a former school principal who was on the school board, to build kindergarten classrooms in new schools before the state kindergarten program began.
In the early 1970s, Tennessee’s governor announced the beginning of a statewide kindergarten program at my mother’s preschool.
In 1987, with Bob Keeshan, better known as Captain Kangaroo, my wife and I founded a company that merged with another company and became the largest provider of worksite day care in the country.
So, for me, the question is not whether but how best to make early childhood education available to the largest possible number of children in order to give them more of an equal opportunity.
In doing this, I have four suggestions.
First, preschool education does not produce miracles. As Mark Lipsey, a psychologist at Vanderbilt University, said, “advocates sometimes make preschool sound like you put them in the pre-K washing machines and scrub them clean. And they come out after that. But effects of poverty and disadvantaged environments don’t work that way. It’s a cumulative process and it’s going to take cumulative efforts to make a big difference. There’s potential here, but we also have to be realistic.”
Second, good parenting is the most important factor and good preschool education doesn’t always have to be expensive. For example, one of the most effective programs in Tennessee was my wife’s “Healthy Children” initiative, which matched expectant mothers with pediatricians giving every new child a medical home. Helping those mothers become better parents provided those babies with a real head start.
Third, Washington can help, but a national effort to expand effective early education will be almost all state and local effort and money. Remember that approximately 90 percent of elementary and secondary education is paid for by state and local governments.
Fourth, the best next step for Washington to take would be to spend more effectively the federal dollars already being spent on early education.
A 2012 GAO report found 45 federal programs providing some early learning and childcare. Twelve of these 45 programs spend about $15 billion solely on early learning and childcare for children under the age of five:
$8.6 billion on Head Start
$5.3 billion on Child Care Development Block Grant and Fund
$250 million on Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge Fund
$790 million in grants for two programs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
In addition, through the federal tax code, we spend roughly $3 billion a year on early childcare and education credits and exclusions for employer-provided care. In addition to those 18 billion federal dollars, states spend about $5 billion on preschool annually, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. Add to that local and private spending.
According to GAO, these numerous initiatives have created a “fragmentation of efforts, some overlap of goals or activities, and potential confusion among families and other program users.”
So, let me suggest one way I believe we could greatly expand effective access to preschool education and one way we should not.
We should fully implement the 200 Head Start Centers of Excellence program Congress authorized in 2007, encouraging and putting the spotlight on those cities and communities doing the best job of coordinating the 18 billion federal dollars already being spent with the billions of other dollars being spent by state, local, and private entities.
I first proposed creating Head Start Centers of Excellence in Early Childhood in 2003, and the idea was eventually included in the 2007 reauthorization of the Head Start Act.
In 2009, Congress appropriated $2 million to fund 10 of these centers for a period of up to five years, ending this year. One of those is represented here today. Full funding would cost another $90 million.
At the end of five years, when it is time for the next reauthorization of Head Start, we can take what we have learned and decide how best to continue the expansion.
Here is what we should not do – and that is to fall back into the familiar Washington pattern of noble intentions, a grand promise, lots of federal mandates and sending the bill to the states with disappointing results.
That describes the president’s proposal for “preschool for all.”
To former governors like me, it sounds like the Medicaid program of federal promises and mandates that have become a costly burden for states.
Here there is another grand promise: $75 billion over 10 years to expand preschool for four-year-olds who live at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty definition.
Then many expensive Washington requirements for states to follow concerning: teacher qualifications; class size and child to instructor ratios; teacher salaries; and early-learning standards.
A nearly identical plan has been introduced here in the Senate.
Just like Medicaid, both proposals send huge bills for all this to the states. States would only pay only about 10 percent of the cost in the first year. But that would rise over 10 years to 50 percent in one proposal and 75 percent of the total cost in the other proposal.
This is the Medicaid model that is burdening states today, soaking up dollars that states would otherwise spend on education, including preschool education.
When I was governor of Tennessee in the 1980s, Medicaid was 8 percent of our state budget. Today, it is nearly 30 percent.
So, my recommendation for the best next step toward the goal of giving access to preschool education for the largest number of children is to fully implement the 200 Head Start Centers of Excellence program enabling states to pool existing funds, try different approaches, and figure out what works for their populations and children, rather than force upon states from Washington another set of grand promises, expensive mandates and disappointing results.