Kids’ advocates stood on the sidelines last March, watching helplessly as the Early Learning Challenge Fund, a $1 billion-a-year initiative to strengthen the quality of early education and child care, was stricken from the health care reform bill. The fact that early education wasn’t important enough to merit an up-or-down vote, instead becoming ensnared in the debates over health care and the restructuring of the college loan program, says a lot about what has happened—more precisely, what hasn’t happened—on the early education front. Despite the widespread recognition that good early education can alter the arc of children’s lives, the conventional wisdom, that children don’t matter because they don’t vote, endures. In national politics, children come last.
This is a particularly bitter pill to swallow because it violates promises made by President Barack Obama and the Congressional leadership that things would be different this time. Flash back to the final debate of the 2008 campaign, when Candidate Obama spoke repeatedly about the importance of early education, a topic on which John McCain stood mute. “We are going to have to invest,” Obama said. Early childhood education, he continued, “closes the achievement gap, so that every child is prepared for school. [With] every dollar we invest in that, we end up getting huge benefits with improved reading scores, reduced dropout rates, reduced delinquency rates.”
This was more than talk. Obama pledged to spend $10 billion on early education, more than half of the $18 billion that he proposed adding to the federal education budget. In a July 2009 speech to the NAACP, the President said he was issuing “a challenge to America’s governors: if you…develop an effective model for early learning; if you focus reform on standards and results in early learning programs; if you demonstrate how you will prepare the lowest income children to meet the highest standards of success — then you can compete for an Early Learning Challenge Grant that will help prepare all our children to enter kindergarten ready to learn.” What the Race to the Top is to K-12 reform, these challenge grants are supposed to be for quality early education.
Congress was on board as well. In the months following the election, the Transition Team, of which I was a member, met with key legislators and top staffers. When we sounded them out on their priorities, the message was invariably the same: early learning topped the agenda. “If the Obama Administration sends us a serious bill — that means a request for at least a billion dollars a year — we’ll take it from there,” said one senior staffer, reflecting the general sentiment. In a Newsweek interview last December, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi reiterated this message. Asked how she dealt with her fractious caucus, she responded: “I always say, what are the three most important issues facing Congress? Our children, our children, our children.”
Yet during the final days of the debate over health care, when push came to shove, early education didn’t make the cut. College loans mattered more, and in 20-20 hindsight, it’s easy to see why. Student aid is a pocketbook issue with a big middle-class constituency; save parents money and you might win their votes in the next election. By contrast, early education has only a diffuse and fragmented political appeal. Despite everything that’s known about the crucial long-term value of early learning, there’s no real political muscle to push the case. The historically fractious children’s lobby has started to coalesce, an essential move if kids’ advocates are to be taken seriously in Congress, but it’s still early days.
Meanwhile, K-12 reform is sucking all the air out of the room. All eyes are focused on the Race to the Top. Rightly so — with a $4 billion investment the Education Department has leveraged a remarkable amount of change at the state level. Imagine the game-changers in policy and practice that the Early Learning Challenge Fund could induce among programs for children birth to age 5.
In fact, imagine the impact if Race to the Top were adapted to include the Early Learning Challenge Fund. Both are competitive grant programs designed to spark change at the state level. Many states, particularly those with strong pre-K programs, are already at pushing against the starting gate, eager to invest in a higher quality, more coherent system of learning opportunities for children starting from the day they are born. Embed incentives to build a strong early learning system in Race to the Top, and that could well be the starting gun they need to get moving. Tying early education to K-12 would also, and usefully, encourage thinking about education from cradle to college.
Shortly after the health care vote, Senator Tom Harkin, who chairs the Senate committee with jurisdiction over education policy, reiterated his embrace of early learning: “Elementary education starts at birth,” he said. With the coming reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and the potential for a next round of Race to the Top, Congress has a new opportunity to make good on the promises of those heady post-election days. Let this chance slide by, and we will have yet another example of kids-last politics.