Will Preschool be part of ESEA Reauthorization?

A growing number of education policymakers and stakeholders are arguing that it should be:

  • Arne Duncan, speaking this morning on ESEA reauthorization, mentioned preschool five separate times, specifically saying “I believe that every single child deserves the opportunity for a strong start through high-quality preschool, and that expanding those opportunities should be part of a new ESEA.”
  • A coalition of 19 civil, women’s and disability rights groups called for “access to early childhood education for economically disadvantaged children and those with disabilities” in their statement of principles for ESEA reauthorization.
  • The Council of Chief State School Officers included “provide additional support for equitable access to early childhood education” under the “funding and flexibility” priority in their statement of ESEA reauthorization priorities.

In general, I’m glad to see Duncan, CCSSO, and civil rights-oriented groups bring preschool into the ESEA conversation. A few further observations on this:

  • These statements point to an emerging narrative of preschool as part of the set of supports and interventions necessary to help low-income students succeed and to help high-poverty schools meet the needs of the students they serve. That’s also the argument that has led judges in several states to mandate preschool as part of school finance equity lawsuits and other states to incorporate preschool into school finance reform legislation.
  • Including preschool in ESEA is the clearest and cleanest pathway to create a long-term future for the administration’s investments in Preschool Development Grants or for a federal role in supporting states’ efforts to expand preschool programs.
  • Authorizing preschool programs in ESEA =/=funding them. ESEA is an authorizing bill, meaning it establishes programs and authorizes Congress to fund them in the future, but does not itself provide any funding for authorized programs. That requires Congress to appropriate funds in the annual appropriations process. And, as anyone who was around for the 2001 NCLB reauthorization, or followed the subsequent “full funding” debate, knows, authorizing a program does not necessarily mean funding it–at authorized levels or at all. In some ways, including a preschool program in ESEA reauthorization is incredibly easy to do–because it doesn’t mean Congress will ever fund it.
  • That said, a new preschool component to ESEA is a hard sell in a Republican-led Congress. To be sure, preschool expansion at the state level has been pretty bipartisan, with Republican governors taking the lead on expanding pre-k in several states. But that doesn’t necessarily translate to the federal level. Congressional Republicans who believe the federal role in K-12 education needs to shrink are unlikely to favor expanding it with a new federal pre-k program. Which adds to my colleague Anne Hyslop’s case that this speech does not increase the chances for ESEA reauthorization.

The other striking thing here is who didn’t mention preschool or early childhood in their reauthorization principles: The American Federation of Teachers. This is striking because the AFT has historically been a strong proponent of preschool programs and represents a significant population of early childhood educators. Moreover, the AFT, and its president, Randi Weingarten, have been strong proponents of the idea that improving educational outcomes for disadvantaged kids requires expanding social and supplemental services to deal with the impact of poverty on students’ learning and on high-poverty schools. Preschool is exactly that kind of support. Its exclusion from AFT’s statement of priorities for ESEA reauthorization speaks buckets about both AFT’s true focus and what calls for “support and improve” as an alternative to “test and punish” are actually about.