One of the first things to strike a visitor at Chicago's Educare
center is the calm.
In every room, kids - ranging in age from birth to 5 years old -
are happily interacting with their teachers and with one another.
It's clear the kids here are learning. And it's an environment,
say education experts, that is too often absent from the sort of
child-care and preschool programs that serve at-risk populations.
It's also a model that some hope will become more prevalent if
the Obama administration's Early Learning Challenge Fund becomes
law. The House has already approved the fund as part of a larger
bill, which is now awaiting action in the Senate.
The $8 billion fund ($10 billion in the Senate version)
represents the biggest federal investment in education in more than
"This is the 'race to the top fund' for early education," says
Cornelia Grumman, executive director of the First Five Years Fund,
an advocacy group in Chicago, referring to the challenge grants that
the Obama administration has been giving to spur K-12 education
The proposed fund offers about $1 billion a year total in
challenge grants to states to help them improve the quality and
governance of early-childhood education programs for at-risk
children. In comparison, the annual budget for Head Start, the
largest federal foray into the preschool years, is about $7 billion
The new fund would be paid for through savings generated from
another part of the legislation - an overhaul of the administration
of college loans.
Although various education issues have spawned controversy, there
is already substantial consensus among education and childhood-
development experts about certain aspects of early-childhood
education. Many agree that those early years are crucial to
students' eventual educational trajectory. They also say that
certain elements - such as high-quality staff and low teacher-child
ratios - are needed for a successful program.
But not everyone agrees with the Obama administration's approach.
Adding $1 billion a year to early-education spending would be a lot
of money - and doesn't make sense given the track record of current
programs, says Dan Lips, a senior policy analyst at the Heritage
Foundation in Washington. He counts 69 existing federal programs for
preschool and child care that total about $25 billion a year. "It
would be misguided to move forward with a new federal preschool
program before reforming and improving the existing ones," he says.
Other early-learning advocates want a push toward universal pre-
K programs, rather than those focused on just the neediest children.
But most say that a targeted approach like the Obama
administration's is a reasonable way to start.
At the state level, early-childhood education has seen something
of a heyday in recent years, as many states have increased spending. …