Senator Tom Harkin’s (D-IA) Strong Start for America’s Children Act (S. 1697) would attempt to create a new universal pre-kindergarten (pre-K) program, similar to the President’s early childhood proposal. A Republican alternative was indicated on Thursday, April 10, when Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) announced he was working on a block grant proposal that would require a great deal less in terms of state quality requirements for pre-K services. Alexander indicated that his proposal would be similar to the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG).
S. 1697 would provide access to pre-K for 4-year-olds with funding conditioned on states providing a match of federal funds. It would promote full-day pre-K for 4-year-old children from families earning below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL). States would pass funding onto local providers that would have to meet high-quality standards including minimum teacher qualifications, rigorous health and safety standards, small class sizes and low child-to-staff ratios, evidence-based comprehensive services for children, strong parent and family engagement, and health screening and referrals. The bill also outlines requirements around better coordination and collaboration between child care and Early Head Start and child care partnerships that are intended to improve the quality of child care.
It is not yet clear exactly how the early childhood block grant approach would be structured, but Alexander indicated that states would have more flexibility, similar to CCDBG. The current structure of CCDBG requires very little in terms of quality standards. In fact, the very nature of the CCDBG funding means that increasing coverage for families, improving child care quality, and providing better reimbursements for providers each compete for the same block grant dollars.
Senator Alexander has raised past criticisms that there are too many programs addressing child care. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report has indicated that they found 45 different programs that deal with early childhood education and child care that receive over $14 billion a year. Critics of that viewpoint say that two-thirds of the programs identified as overlapping actually have different missions than providing child care. For example, the Child and Adult Feeding Care Program focuses on nutrition services and does not provide child care. The report also counts the $1.5 billion in Defense Department child care funding, which is limited to military families and unlikely to ever be turned over to state control. It also counts $8 billion in funding for Head Start and Early Head Start. While some Republican lawmakers, including Representative Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.) and Senator Mike Lee’s (R-Utah), have bills that would turn Head Start into state block grants, there has been strong bipartisan opposition to such an approach in the recent past.
To compare, the President’s pre-K and early childhood education proposal would build on initial seed money of $250 million included in the FY 2014 budget. There would be $1.3 billion in matching federal funds for states that already have pre-K programs, with funds to be used to expand the quality and availability of current services. States would have to meet rigorous standards beyond what they have been required to provide under CCDBG. Finally, the pre-K portion would be funded by increasing the current tobacco tax.