In his State of the Union address last week, President Obama outlined several ambitious initiatives to strengthen the nation’s education system. One of his proposed reforms would expand access to high-quality preschool and early learning opportunities. The president emphasized the importance of early childhood education and noted that, “Study after study shows that the sooner a child begins learning, the better he or she does down the road.”
Last week, the White House released more details about the president’s plan for promoting early learning. The main tenets of the proposal are to create a federal-state partnership to expand access to preschool for children from low- and middle-income families, to expand early learning opportunities for younger children (birth through age three) through an Early Head Start-Child Care partnership, and to increase the reach of voluntary home visiting programs that provide critical services for vulnerable families. These proposals would significantly bolster the efforts of a growing number of municipal leaders who seek to improve early care and education. Many of these efforts have focused on the transition from preschool to elementary school. For instance, last year, the National League of Cities released a set of case studies describing how five cities are working to align successful early childhood programs with K-12 educational systems.
Reactions from the education field to President Obama’s proposal have been generally enthusiastic, and many are excited that a bold proposal for early childhood education earned a spot in the State of the Union speech. However, questions about yet-to-be-specified details remain, and many are skeptical about the prospect for authorizing a major new early childhood initiative this year. Andrew Rotherham, co-founder and partner at Bellwether Education Partners, has acknowledged that the proposal is likely to face a tough battle in Congress. The president has yet to explain how this proposal would be funded, and some experts, including Bellwether Education Partners Senior Associate Sara Mead, are concerned that a federal-state partnership might pose problems for states that are already facing financial difficulties. The New America Foundation has listed their initial questions, which address topics such as how to define and measure nationwide quality and standards, how Head Start will be affected, and the qualifications of an early education workforce.
It remains to be seen if this idea will make it through a Congress that is focused on spending cuts and the looming sequester. But if the president has his way, young children across the country will have access to expanded learning opportunities at a critical point in their lives.