How Should Obama's $10 Billion Pledge for Early Childhood Education Be Used?

Article excerpt

Byline: Sara Mead, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

Sara Mead

Advocates for early childhood education are understandably excited about their prospects under President-elect Barack Obama's administration. During the campaign, Mr. Obama pledged to increase federal early education spending by $10 billion annually.

Currently, the two largest federal early childhood programs, Head Start and the Child Care and Development Block Grant, spend about $12 billion annually combined. A $10 billion increase would almost double that investment.

Just as remarkably, Mr. Obama deliberately singled out early education as an important investment he would prioritize even in tight economic times. Add in a potentially $1 trillion economic stimulus package that's raising the prospects for even previously inconceivable public investments, and advocates are downright giddy.

It seems terribly Grinch-like to throw cold water on these hopes. But in fact this is a dangerous moment for both Mr. Obama and the early education movement.

If new early education investments are made too quickly - if funding gets ahead of capacity to deliver high-quality programs - the results will not live up to the high expectations advocates have created. Policymakers and the public could ultimately lose faith in early education, backtracking on investments. That would be tragic.

To prevent this outcome, the Obama administration must ensure that any new early education investments focus on quality, invest in capacity, and are integrated into a broader education reform agenda.

A substantial and compelling body of research demonstrates that high-quality early education programs have positive long-term effects on children's school performance, educational attainment and adult earnings. In other words, high-quality early education is an investment in our future economic growth. That new investment should come from the federal government.

Since 2002, states have more than doubled their spending on pre-kindergarten programs, fueling dramatic enrollment growth - even as federal investment has stagnated. Now, as the economic crisis puts increasing pressure on state budgets, it's time for Washington to step up.

But money alone isn't enough. The major lesson we should take from the past eight years of state pre-K experiences is that how policymakers design and implement early education investments is just as important as the money they spend.

States like New Jersey, which thoughtfully implemented high-quality pre-K in its highest-poverty school districts as part of a larger school reform agenda, have seen student achievement gains. Other states, which implemented large pre-K programs on the cheap with low standards, have not.

How can Mr. Obama ensure that new early education investments produce results?

First, he must ensure that all new early education investments focus on quality above all else. Research shows that early education has positive impacts on children's learning and lives - but only if early education programs are of high quality. Expanding access to poor quality pre-K or child care programs doesn't cut it.

Any new federal investment must be accompanied by strong quality standards that ensure states and providers use funds to deliver high-quality services that reflect what research tells us works to improve young children's learning. These standards must include small class sizes, qualified teachers, well-designed comprehensive curriculum, and ongoing monitoring of classroom quality and child outcomes. …