Early childhood misstep

While the Senate is consumed by health care, other problem topics are piling up. A recent arrival on its docket is the "Early Learning Challenge Fund," a complex federal pre-school collage, passed last week by the House with several worthy features but more than a little bad stuff. One hopes, with scant confidence, that the Senate will set it right.

The pre-school provisions are tucked into a massive student-aid overhaul measure that knocks banks out of the loan business and turns it over entirely to the Education Department and its contractors. That allegedly saves $1 billion per year to be used for the new early-childhood fund, which incorporates the Obama administration's intentions as well as House Education Chairman George Miller's. Dollar-wise, it's far smaller than the $10 billion per annum for "birth to five" that the president promised during his campaign, but the White House is also adding money to the budget for Head Start and other extant federal programs.

The "Challenge Fund" is meant primarily to leverage state-run early-childhood programs in more or less the direction that the Pew Foundation and its generously funded advocacy groups have been pushing--a direction that I recently examined and found lacking.

(News flash: multiple sources report that Pew is easing back from, if not abandoning, its quest for universal pre-school. This will, of course, make life harder for those advocates, though they're also funded by other foundations and, predictably, by the feds. I don't know what's behind Pew's change of heart, so choose to assume that my misgivings showed them the error of their ways and persuaded them to redirect their resources into other pursuits.)

The House bill has some merit. On the positive side:

The Challenge Fund is not focused single-mindedly on expanding state-operated pre-schools to serve everybody so much as boosting the quality and performance of programs serving disadvantaged youngsters. Such "targeting" makes much sense. The bill properly regards such kids as needing help from birth onward, not just for a single year at age four. It's also strong on data systems and coordination of the myriad programs that already clutter this field. It does not dump the money into programs operated by public-school systems (though states are free to do so) and it allows funds to be used for developing better indicators of program quality and kindergarten readiness.

The bill attends to professional development for pre-school staff and to effective "classroom observation," which the University of Virginia's Robert Pianta and others have shown to be the surest way to identify elements of effective programs and teachers. Furthermore, it pays at least lip service to "alignment" of pre-school standards with the state's academic expectations for the early grades.

If that were the whole story, this measure would deserve applause. But of course there's more. Three big flaws in particular:

First, H.R. 3221 is a bureaucratic hodgepodge that calls for all manner of councils, commissions, and coordinators. Not the least of those problems is the Washington bureaucracy that it fails to sort out. Because some of the federal programs involved are in the Education Department and some in Health & Human Services (e.g., Head Start and the "Child Care and Development Block Grant" that was part of welfare reform), the House-passed bill calls for the new Challenge Fund to be "jointly administered" by the two agencies. Picture the coordination nightmare ahead.

Second, the bill creates a new national commission on standards, charged with reviewing "the status of state and federal early learning program quality standards" and recommending new benchmarks for such standards--and sets aside a very generous $30 million a year for this purpose. That may or may not turn out to be a good thing--quality standards in the early-childhood field surely need an overhaul--but in the meantime the bill lends oomph to the antiquated notions that prevail in this field. These center on paper credentials for staffers and staff-child ratios that boost costs with no certain impact on effectiveness.

Third and most troubling, H.R. 3221 forbids states to assess children's school readiness in ways that can be traced back to their pre-school teachers or individual pre-school centers and operators. This echoes the Head Start lobby's success a few years back in strong-arming Congress to block then-assistant secretary Wade Horn's effort to establish a "national reporting system" by which Head Start centers would be judged according to their effectiveness in preparing 4-years-olds to succeed academically in kindergarten.

The early-childhood crowd is, of course, gaga over this bill. The New America Foundation's Sara Mead, who follows this topic with a keen eye (and, generally, good sense) told a New York Times reporter that "I haven't talked with anybody who isn't excited" about it. (The journalist also noted, however, that some folks in this field are irked by Arne Duncan's neglect of early-childhood education in his "race to the top" priorities.)

In reality, however, it's a flawed piece of work that the Senate would do well to fix. Not that anyone actually expects such repairs to get made. There's every reason to expect the Senate to accede to the House (and administration) and hand the president a bill to sign on Christmas Eve as his gift to America's children.

It will be particularly disappointing if this--plus more money under the Christmas tree--turns out to be the full extent of Obama's attention to early childhood. While it's good that his team has not climbed aboard the "universal pre-school" bandwagon, strong federal leadership could make valuable contributions in this area, starting with a total makeover of Head Start (and its $7 billion per year) into the school readiness program that it ought to be. What a pity if this mixed bag of a bill is all they do.

In slightly different form, this piece originally appeared on Forbes.com.

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