Moving Quickly and Called 'Mandatory': What You Need to Know About the Federal Bill on Early Learning Grants
The early childhood community is just starting to digest yesterday's news about legislation in Congress that could provide a new stream of money for states setting up high-quality early learning systems. In the hubbub and coming analysis on the bill's details, we also shouldn't miss some important elements of not just what it says, but how it has been introduced. In other words, it's time to practice saying two words: reconciliation and mandatory.
The early education piece is a small section of much larger bill designed to overhaul the government's student loan program. That bill is a reconciliation bill, meaning that it is specifically designed to move through Congress much faster than your typical piece of legislation.
A centerpiece of President Obama's early education plan -- the Early Learning Challenge Fund -- just got its ticket to ride in a sweeping student aid bill introduced today by House Education and Labor Chairman George Miller.
The primary purpose of the Student Aid and Financial Responsibility Act (SAFRA) is to reform federal programs that provide subsidized loans for college students. The proposed reforms would create some $87 billion in taxpayer savings. Miller's legislation would capture a portion of those savings -- $10 billion over 10 years -- to fund Early Learning Challenge Grants. (Here's the full text of the legislation.)
The details of the program are similar to what the administration outlined in its fiscal year 2010 budget proposal. A key difference is that SAFRA would provide $1 billion in mandatory funding for early childhood programs each year over the next 10 years, rather than the $300 million in discretionary spending the Obama administration initially sought for 2010.
A summary of the bill posted online earlier today says that to win these grants, states would need to commit to build comprehensive early childhood systems that include:
New leaders are coming aboard at the Administration for Children and Families, the part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services that deals with Head Start and child care programs.
Carmen Nazario was nominated by President Obama in May to be the assistant secretary for children and families. She is awaiting confirmation by the Senate. Nazario knows ACF from her days as an associate commissioner during the Clinton Administration and has led Delaware's health and human services department as well as the children and families administration within Puerto Rico's health and human services department. A former social worker, she most recently taught social policy at the Inter American University of Puerto Rico.
More than 60 percent of Americans have jobs that pay by the hour. One-quarter to one-third of them are low-wage jobs like waiting tables, working at nursing homes and standing behind the counter at the Rite-Aid. These employees often face unpredictable hours and less-than-full-time paychecks. And if these employees also happen to be parents, the instability and inflexibility of their work life is likely having negative effects on the health and education of their kids.
Yesterday, at a New America event titled "Flexible Work Arrangements and Low-Wage Work," several researchers laid these facts on the table. It was another reminder of the interdependence of policies related to health, education, the economy and the American workforce. And it highlighted why working families often struggle to find appropriate child care, to care for sick children or to find ways to participate in their children's education.
The Washington Post ran a story yesterday on the "nanny glut" and it caught our attention -- partly for what it didn't say. Turns out that the recession has led many families to let go of their nannies, usually because mom or dad no longer have a job or their work hours were cut. Then the story took an interesting tack, suggesting that this was a boon for relatively well-off, working parents. As the story reported, parents can finally be choosy about which nanny they hire, instead of having to beg and scrounge to find the right person.
Nanny stories are always fun to read -- I was among the throngs who gulped down The Nanny Diaries when it came out in 2002 -- but are we alone here in feeling that there was something missing from the Post's treatment of this issue? For instance: How is the recession affecting less well-off families, those who are either finding their paychecks shrinking or who were never quite making enough money to pay for a nanny in the first place?
Other questions that are on our mind as we continue to learn about the depth of the recession and its impact on children:
Child care is expensive, and for many families, economic hard times have made quality child care unaffordable. Stories are emerging about how parents are being forced to pull their children out of care, find alternative arrangements, or even quit work because the cost of child care has exceeded what their paychecks provide. Other stories describe how emptier classrooms impact providers, how infants are particularly affected (because caring for infants requires more staff and is therefore more expensive), or how fewer children in well-supervised care has led to an increase in cases of child abuse or neglect. ABC News produced a video about how this is impacting middle class families who can't pay for care but still make too much to qualify for child care subsidies or Head Start. Earlier this week New York Times columnist Bob Herbert wrote about fewer children being able to gain access to necessary health services.
Seeking funding for research on child care centers or Head Start? Have some ideas for the creation of a federal center dedicated to research on young English-language learners? Consider submitting them to the Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation for the Administration for Children and Families. The office, which is part of U.S. Health and Human Services Department, is seeking proposals this spring for three grant programs related to early childhood research.
Details -- pasted from the OPRE news listserv -- are below. Deadlines are quickly approaching. You've got until the end of this month to get letters of intent out the door.
Who's watching who's watching the children? The federal government leaves this task to the states. But states are failing to ensure that childcare centers are safe, according to a report released today by the National Association of Child Care Resource & Referral Agencies.
Parents assume that if a child care center has obtained a state license, it must meet some basic standards of child safety and personnel training. But in many places, the license means very little, said Linda K. Smith, NACCRRA's executive director.
"A license on a wall does not mean that a center has ever been inspected," Smith said. "This is inexcusable."
NACCRRA examined state regulations and oversight in 50 states plus the District of Columbia and the Department of Defense, which runs its own network of child-care centers. Each state was judged using a scorecard created by the association that gave states points for policies that address health, safety, and quality of childcare providers -- such as how frequently the facilities are inspected, whether caregivers must go through background checks, and whether directors have any training in child development.
In a coincidence of timing, we published our roundup of various organizations' proposals for early childhood care and education in the stimulus package at about the same time as Pre-K Now released a letter to House Speaker Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid outlining their stimulus agenda for early education--so Pre-k Now's agenda didn't make it into our roundup.
Pre-k Now's first recommendation calls for state fiscal relief--an idea we've previously noted might be the best way to support early education in the stimulus, by staving of likely state cuts to early childhood and elementary school funding. Like some of the organizations we mentioned yesterday, they're also calling for $3 billion in increased funding for Head Start and Early Head Start, and another $3 billion increase for the Child Care and Development Block Grant.
As we've said previously, one thing for early education advocates to keep an eye on in the stimulus package is ensuring that community-based early education providers have access to any new school construction funding that the legislation provides: And Pre-k Now has kept their eye on that ball, encouraging Congress to allocate $1 billion of any school modernization package specifically for school facilities.
As we've previously noted, the economic crisis is hitting early childhood care and education programs, too. Parents who've lost their jobs are pulling their children out of preschool and child care programs. Child care centers in hard-hit areas are struggling to stay afloat amid growing vacancies, threatening the care other families need to stay in the workforce. Even worse, some financially strapped families, faced with choosing between child care and other essential bills, are choosing to leave their young children home alone while they work--a situtation that puts little ones in considerable danger. And states face budget shortfalls that could lead to cuts in child care funds.