Is the federal budget for early childhood programs half-full or half-empty?

Lisa Guernsey of Early Ed Watch has an informative post outlining President Obama’s fiscal year 2012 budget request for early childhood programs.

Even though the President did not mention early childhood programs in his State of the Union address, the fiscal year 2012 budget is relatively generous towards early childhood programs. In the context of a budget that freezes non-defense discretionary spending, early childhood programs are treated very well. I agree with Lisa Guernsey’s analysis that the budget proposes increases for early childhood programs that amount to at least $2 billion. The percentage increase in federal funding is probably well over 10%. (I calculate this by assuming various proportions for different programs of how much goes to early childhood programs.)

From an early childhood program perspective, the most important initiatives are significant increases in funding for Head Start and child care subsidies, a renewed call for an Early Learning Challenge Fund, and the Home Visiting funding already enacted as part of health care reform.  The Early Learning Challenge Fund would provide competitive grants to states to encourage them to set up better systems for early learning from birth to age 5.

If this budget request was enacted as proposed, it would significantly increase federal early childhood funding. These increases would help support and supplement state efforts to maintain and expand early childhood programs.

On the other hand, the political prospects for Obama’s budget request are questionable. Republicans in Congress have proposed much larger cuts in spending.  For example, the House Appropriations Committee recently proposed cutting Head Start by more than $1 billion for the rest of this fiscal year.

Furthermore, compared to the size of the need for early childhood investments, an increase of $2 billion is not large. For example, in Investing in Kids, I estimate that moving to universal pre-k would cost an additional $14.3 billion. As another example, the proposed annual funding in the President’s budget for home visiting programs is $350 million. Yet according to my estimates in Investing in Kids, operating the Nurse Family Partnership at full scale for all disadvantaged first-time mothers would have an annual cost of $3.7 billion.

If early childhood programs are to be significantly expanded, such expansions will probably depend on the actions of state and local governments.

About timbartik

Tim Bartik is a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, a non-profit and non-partisan research organization in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His research specializes in state and local economic development policies and local labor markets.
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