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Alexander to Introduce Early Childhood Education Bill to Let States Decide How Best to Use Federal Dollars

Says best way to educate youngest Americans is to let states direct some or all of $22 billion now spent across 45 federal early childhood programs


“Enabling states and parents will get better results than creating a national school board for early childhood education.” –Lamar Alexander

Washington, D.C., April 10 – U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the senior Republican on the Senate education committee, today said he was developing legislation that would provide states the flexibility to decide how best to use some or all of the more than $22 billion in federal money spent annually on 45 different early childhood education programs.

“Total federal government spending today is more than $22 billion a year—about the same amount that the U.S. Department of Education spends on K-12 education through the Elementary and Secondary Education Act,” Alexander said. “It’s a lot of money but we’re not spending it as well as we could. The right way to take the next step is to spend the $22 billion federal dollars we are already spending in a way that enables states and parents to choose the very best early childhood experience for their child.”

Alexander cited a General Accountability Office report that found the federal government funds 45 different early childhood and preschool programs. He noted that Congress this year appropriated more than $15 billion for the 12 programs that are explicitly focused on early childhood, and that the government spends another $3 billion a year on early childhood and preschool tax credits and exclusions for employer-provided care.

“The General Accountability Office says, this has created a ‘fragmentation of efforts, some overlap of goals or activities, and potential confusion among families and other program users,’” he said.

He quoted Louisiana Superintendent of Schools, John White, who testified before the committee in February about his state’s efforts to provide “basic conditions” for parents and children to have quality choices and access to preschool education. White explained “the greatest barrier” to implementing a pre-kindergarten program that meets the basic conditions is “the fragmentation of our country’s early childhood education system.” White used Head Start as an example, and said that $120 million of federal funding going to Louisiana annually for Head Start, “skirts state-level input, virtually institutionalizes fragmentation and guarantees incoherence in access to quality for parents, teachers and children alike.”

Alexander suggested that Congress use the Child Care Development and Block Grant program reauthorization bill—which just passed the Senate by a vote of 96 to 2—as a guide for early childhood education legislation.

“The program enabled instead of mandating,” Alexander said of the Child Care Development and Block Grant bill. “It enables parents to choose…and it gives the states flexibility.”

Alexander detailed how Tennessee might be able to spend its share of the $22 billion in federal dollars, which might be about $440 million.

“If given that kind of flexibility, we could increase the number of childcare vouchers from 39,000 to 139,000,” Alexander said. “Or we could expand the state-funded voluntary preschool program from 18,000 to 109,000 children. Or we could expand Head Start from about 17,000 3 and 4-year olds to 56,000 children.”

Today’s hearing was on legislation introduced by Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). Alexander said of that legislation: “What we shouldn’t do is fall back into the familiar Washington pattern of a grand promise, lots of federal mandates and sending the bill to governors to pay in the end. The bill that we are talking about today has $27 billion in new funding over 5 years. But it has many expensive Washington mandates, which in effect create a national school board for preschool education.”

Under the Harkin legislation, states would pay about 10 percent of the cost in the first year, but the percentage would rise to 50 percent, Alexander said. He noted that Washington would decide the ages of children to be served; staff qualifications, teacher salaries; maximum class sizes; length of the school day; vision, dental, and health screenings; nutritious meals; physical activity programs; health and safety standards; developmentally-appropriate standards and curriculums.

“All that would be decided here. Not locally,” Alexander said. “We have millions of children who need this kind of early education. We can do better than create a national school board through 45 programs—plus one more—and then, send the bill to the states.”

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