Primary Watch: Barack Obama's Early Education Agenda
Focusing on Zero-to-Five
The centerpiece of Barack Obama’s early education agenda would be a new program of Early Learning Challenge Grants, which would provide states with funding to support quality child care, early education, and other services for pregnant women and children from birth through age five. States could use Early Learning Challenge Grant funds to support voluntary, high-quality preschool programs for three- and four-year olds, but universal pre-k is not the central focus of Obama’s early education strategy. Instead, states would be given flexibility in how they choose to expand quality pre-k and other early education programs.
In order to receive Early Learning Challenge Grants, states would be required to: match new federal funds, meet quality and accountability standards, develop public/private partnerships, ensure that parents receive valid information, and provide support for both early learning and family support services (such as nurse home visiting). Although Senator Obama’s plan refers to high-quality early childhood care and pre-k, it does not describe the quality standards states would be expected to meet.
The proposal draws from the work of the Illinois Early Learning Council, which Obama helped create as a state legislator. The Illinois Early Learning Council works to support a seamless system of early learning and care in
Obama’s plan includes several other steps to expand quality early education, including:
- Quadruple Early Head Start: The Early Head Start program provides services to low-income children ages 0-3, and evaluations of the program have produced very positive findings. Early Head Start currently serves about 61,000 children.
- Increase Head Start Funding, which has stagnated under the Bush administration. The plan does not include specific targets for funding increases or numbers of additional youngsters served.
- Improve Head Start Quality: Provide $250 million to create or expand regional training centers to help Head Start centers implement successful models.
- Increase funding for the Child Care and Development Block Grant, which has stagnated under the Bush administration, resulting in the loss of services for 150,000 children. Obama would double quality funding within CCDBG, and would encourage states to use their quality set-aside funding to develop strategic plans that better coordinate all birth-to-five services.
- Support Nurse-Family Partnerships: Provide Nurse-Home Visitation for 570,000 new mothers annually. This model, in which nurses visit at-risk mothers during pregnancy and for the first 18 months of their children's lives to provide support, health services, and education, has been shown to be effective in improving children's and mothers' outcomes.
Obama has proposed spending $10 billion annually to support these early education investments. He has also proposed making the Child and Dependent Care Tax Credit refundable, so that low-income families can receive up to a 50 percent tax credit for their child care expenses. Currently, the tax credit is non-refundable and covers only 35 percent of the first $3,000 in child care expenses ($6,000 if a family has two or more children). It’s not clear whether the cost of this proposal is included in the $10 billion or not.
Supporting Work-Family Balance
Senator Obama has also proposed several work-family balance proposals that could affect young children’s learning and development:
- Expand Paid Family Leave: Create a $1.5 billion fund to help states with start-up costs for paid family leave programs and offset costs for employers and employees.
- Expand the Family and Medical Leave Act to cover employers with 25 workers (it currently applies only to employers with at least 50 workers).
- Provide Afterschool Programs to 1 Million More Children: Double funding for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, the federal government’s primary afterschool investment (currently funded at $1 billion).
- Promote flexible workplaces: Create a program to inform businesses about the benefits of workplace flexibility and help them set up flexible work arrangements. Increased federal incentives for telecommuting. Make the federal government a model for workplace flexibility.
Both Senator Obama and Senator Clinton have laid out ambitious early education agendas. Next week we’ll raise some questions that voters and the media should be asking about these proposals and discuss their potential to be enacted into law under a Clinton or Obama administration. We’ll also look at what Republican Presidential candidate John McCain is—or, more importantly, is not—saying about early education on the campaign trail.
If you’d like to learn more about Senator Obama’s views on education issues, check out his full PK-12 education plan, or read about his higher education proposals on our sister blog, HigherEdWatch.org.
Photo by flickr user Brian Finifter used under a Creative Commons license.