Education Week published an article on May 9 that covered some possible federal encouragement for states to invest more in early childhood programs. The recent federal budget deal gave the U.S. Department of Education $700 million to have a new competitive federal grant programs for states doing educational reform.
According to Education Week, the federal Department of Education is thinking of devoting a significant chunk of these new funds, or even the entire amount, to encourage innovative state efforts in early childhood education.
How can the federal government best use some sizable chunk of this $700 million to encourage better early childhood education systems?
Compared to the overall need for early childhood programs in the U.S., $700 million is not large. In my book Investing in Kids, I estimate that universal pre-K for the U.S. would cost around $14 billion. High-quality full-time child care and preschool for all disadvantaged children from birth to age 5 would cost around $40 billion.
On the other hand, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), overall state funding for pre-k is about $5.4 billion. And according to the Education Week article, Steve Barnett of NIEER estimates that full funding of pre-k for all disadvantaged children would cost about $2 billion. Finally, high-quality evaluation of all state-funded early childhood programs could probably be accomplished at a cost less than $700 million. Therefore, particularly if the federal government’s efforts are focused, it might do appreciable good in at least a few states.
In my opinion, a federal effort to encourage state programs in early childhood education should focus on encouraging quality. To get funds, states should have to provide plans for what incentives and training the state is providing to improve the quality of early childhood programs. States should also have to provide plans for better evaluation of early childhood programs. (For example, for pre-k programs, this could include regression discontinuity evaluations.)
As part of the federal program, participating states should be provided with sufficient funds to allow some significant expansion of quality slots in preschool and/or child care programs. Such significant expansion requires that relatively few states be targeted by the proposed program. I think states should be given flexibility in how to use these additional slots, in terms of age range of children included and in which children are targeted for participation in these additional slots. Given the range of conditions in the various states, how programs should best be expanded may vary greatly across the states. We should not assume that there is one correct federal answer on how to expand these programs.