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Committee Begins Hearings on Early Childhood Development

This week, the House Education and Labor Committee began hearings on the importance of early childhood development and how to improve early childhood development policies and practices. 
Full Committee 
The full committee hearing on March 17, “The Importance of Early Childhood Development,” focused on the need for early childhood education. 
“Over the past decade, there has been groundbreaking research on brain and child development that underscores the importance of the first five years of a child’s life,” said Chair George Miller (D-CA). “In combination with their genes, children’s experiences in these critical early years influence brain chemistry, architecture, and growth in ways that can have lasting effects on their health, learning, and behavior. The Early Childhood Longitudinal Study overseen by the Department of Education, for example, found that twice as many four-year-olds from upper-income family households were proficient in early math skills when compared to four-year-olds from the lowest income households.” Rep. Miller also explained the need for accessible, affordable, and high quality child care, saying, “Today, nearly 12 million of the 18.5 million children under five in this country are in some type of regular child care or early education setting. Children with working mothers spend, on average, 36 hours per week in early learning settings. Child care costs for families with young children are generally the single highest or second highest spending cost, after housing. Parents need more affordable, quality early education settings for their children as they work longer hours or take on a second job. Unfortunately, research suggests that the quality of child care in this country is mediocre. This is not surprising given the weak and variable standards in most states for early learning programs…The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act [P.L. 111-5] provides emergency funding for child care, Head Start, and Early Head Start to expand opportunities for more low-income children, and create tens of thousands of jobs. This is a good start, but more needs to be done.” 
 
While stating his support for early childhood programs aimed at low-income children and their families, Ranking Member Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-CA) questioned the need for additional government interventions: “While governments have traditionally played a central role in K-12 education, the pre-K years have always been the domain of parents. There are numerous early childhood programs available, both public and private, from center-based child care to school-based settings with an academic focus. Although states have increasingly become involved with pre-K initiatives, the federal government has largely refrained from inserting itself into the day-to-day operations of such programs.” Rep. McKeon continued, “Of course, there is one notable exception. Since 1965, the federal government has been involved in early childhood education through the Head Start program, which includes Early Head Start…I think the federal government has been right to focus our resources on disadvantaged children and their families. Like it or not, we have to make choices with the federal budget. And when it comes to setting priorities for early childhood education, I think our priority should be the children who we know are at risk of falling behind.” He added, “In 2000, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report on federal involvement in early care and education programs. The study found that in fiscal year 1999, nine different federal agencies administered a total of 69 different federal programs that provided support for early education and care for children under age five. I mention this because I understand that there are proposals to create yet another federal early childhood program…I think it would be a real mistake to simply layer on an additional program, particularly when there are so many programs, and so much is already being spent, for the same purpose.” 
 
Harriet Meyer, co-chair of the Illinois Early Learning Council, explained the achievement gap between lower- and upper-income infants and toddlers and the efforts underway in Illinois to close that gap: “Research tells us that the achievement gap is measurable and apparent by 18 months. We know that verbal skills are essential to success in school, but at age four, children in poverty know a fraction of the words that middle-class children do. We know that the differences between these groups are unchanged at age five, age 12, and beyond. Many poor children suffer from chaotic, stressful environments without the attention and stimulation they need to develop. At 18 months, a child in a low-income family hears about 3 million words a year, while a child in a higher income family hears 11 million. That difference translates into a gap of over 30 million words by age four.” Ms. Meyer continued, “So what are we doing in Illinois to close the achievement gap? Based on a blueprint created by the Illinois Early Learning Council, legislators enacted Preschool for All. Our guiding principles were to make high quality, voluntary preschool progressively available to all three- and four-year-olds, with priority for those most at risk of school failure. Like the federal Early Head Start program, we began at birth by expanding birth to three programs for at-risk infants and toddlers at the same time we grew preschool programming. Demand has been so strong for birth to three programs, that we are looking to increase the amount this year. Preschool for All is unique because it builds on existing programs. Those programs range from non-profit and for-profit child care centers and homes, to school- and community-based pre-K, to Head Start and Early Head Start centers, to home visitations programs with an overriding focus on setting high standards of quality and helping programs to meet them…In Illinois, close to 100,000 preschoolers and 16,000 vulnerable infants and toddlers are currently benefiting from these standards.” 
 
“Although what many families need is full-day, year-round programming, policymakers have historically treated child care as a necessity for parents rather than a service for children,” said Jessie Rasmussen, vice president of the Buffett Early Childhood Fund. She continued, “The child care subsidy available to parents with limited income is often viewed as only that which is needed to pay for someone to watch children while their parents work and is not recognized as an opportunity for early childhood education. This false dichotomy between child care and early learning needs to be eliminated — child care must be viewed as an early learning environment, especially since many children at risk are spending significant time in care by people other than their parents. As a consequence of this false dichotomy, the child care subsidy often isn’t funded to pay the costs of providing high quality, early learning environments nor is it managed to support effective program operations. For example, in many states, child care subsidy payments are based on 50-75 percent market rates. Market rates don’t represent what it costs to deliver evidence-based standards of quality, not to mention that paying less than market rates doesn’t buy quality. Additionally, many states make child care payments based on attendance rather than enrollment. Programs must pay their teacher salaries and other operational costs regardless of whether all children enrolled show up every day. Parents who earn slightly too much income one month may suddenly be ineligible for the child care subsidy and unable to pay the full tuition. Programs can’t always hold a spot in their program and certainly can’t cover the lost income. The bottom line is that many of the very best early care and education programs don’t serve children dependent on the subsidy because the reimbursement doesn’t begin to address their costs.” 
 
In explaining the role of parents in early childhood education, Don Soifer, executive vice president of the Lexington Institute, said, “Early childhood programs cannot substitute for the positive influence of good parenting on a child’s development. Research tells us that quality parenting is the strongest and most consistent predictor of a child’s success, but that high quality early childhood education programs do result in higher vocabulary scores measured from age 4-1/2 through sixth grade. A study by Jay Belsky [director of the Institute for the Study of Children, Families, and Social Issues and professor of psychology at Birkbeck University of London] and colleagues published in the journal Child Development in 2007 demonstrated that parenting quality significantly predicted all developmental outcomes measured, including reading, math, and vocabulary achievement into the fifth and sixth grade, making it the most important factor in a child’s development. A government program that would cause any child to enjoy less quality parenting time would thus be harmful to the child’s educational prospects, and one that instituted a lower age of compulsory attendance would do so on a much larger scale.”
Mr. Soifer continued, explaining the role that school choice can play in early childhood education: “Charter schools, whose missions center on closing achievement gaps for disadvantaged and minority children, have come to recognize the value of implementing high quality pre-kindergarten programs. Here in Washington, DC, some charter school leaders see a connection between the rapid growth of charter schools and their investment in early childhood programs. Innovative pre-K programs run by public charter schools, schools of choice, are achieving positive results with at-risk student populations…Over 80 percent of children enrolled in early childhood programs in the United States are in privately run programs. Allowing tax dollars to follow the child honors a parent’s choice while minimizing government entanglement. Parents with the fewest options economically could choose between part-day or full-day programs, based in a home, private or government center, or even a nonprofit or faith-based provider, as families whose incomes permit them to afford these choices do already…Washington should not seek to define a quality program in the ways it has under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act [P.L. 107-110], because any effort to do so, however well intended, has a strong likelihood of doing more harm than good. Program uniformity should not be a goal of federal early childhood education policy…It would be harmful for federal funding to undermine parents’ ability to choose the program they feel is best for their child. Federal dollars used to fund state programs that exclude private or faith-based programs could do those programs considerable harm. So would grant dollars used to fund programs where faith-based early childhood providers face restrictive licensure requirements. On the other hand, state programs that promote competition would allow parents a greater freedom of choice.” 

Helene Stebbins, project coordinator at the National Center on Children and Poverty; Jim Redmon, executive director of the Kansas Children’s Cabinet and Trust Fund; and Holly Robinson, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning, also testified. 
 
Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education 
 
On March 19, the subcommittee continued the examination of early childhood programs with its hearing, “Improving Early Childhood Development Policies and Practices.” 
 
Chair Dale Kildee (D-MI) recognized the efforts Congress undertook last year to promote early childhood education, saying, “We reauthorized the Head Start Act [P.L. 110-134] to prioritize teacher quality and Early Head Start, among other things. I was proud to have been the chief sponsor of that bipartisan reauthorization, along with Chairman [George] Miller [(D-CA)], [Rep. Mike] Castle [(R-DE)], [Rep. Vern] Ehlers [(R-MI)], and others. The committee also reported my colleague [Rep. Mazie] Hirono’s [(D-HI)] PRE-K Act [H.R. 3289]. But, as we will hear today, meeting the goal we share with President Obama is about more than any one program, but about ensuring that wherever children are, there are high standards, and the resources and accountability to ensure those standards are met.” 
 
Ranking Member Mike Castle (R-DE) also acknowledged the work of the committee in reauthorizing the Head Start Act and added, “I agree that Congress should look at ways through which we can support the work states are currently doing to guarantee our youngest children are provided the early learning opportunities they need to succeed in school and in life.” He continued, “To do this, Congress must work in a bipartisan manner to make sure certain parents remain in control of their child’s early childhood care and education. Congress must also ensure that states are given the flexibility they need to carry out successful early childhood programs while remaining mindful of taxpayer resources throughout the process especially in these touch economic times. Additionally, I am hopeful that we can work together to coordinate, not duplicate, existing federal early childhood programs.” 
 
Harriet Dichter, deputy secretary of the Pennsylvania Office of Child Development and Early Learning, articulated three points: “To meet children’s and family needs, we need a continuum of quality services. We can and should expect to make investments in programs with different names, such as child care, pre-kindergarten, and Head Start, for example, and we should expect to invest in infants, toddlers, and preschoolers in each and every year until they enter school…We insist that our programs share certain commonalities: high program and specific early learning standards for each age group from birth to second grade that links to our third grade standards; degreed and credentialed early childhood staff; curriculum and assessments aligned with early learning standards; partnerships with parents; program accountability; documentation of children’s progress; and sufficient financial and ‘helping hand’ supports that endorse and demand excellence.” She added, “My second point is the importance of shared, responsible, and sufficient public investment in these programs. The established and dedicated funding stream in areas such as the Child Care Development Block Grant, Head Start, and IDEA [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, P.L. 108-446] Early Intervention for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers, are not keeping pace with the need. As one of only eight states to consistently improve state investment in a continuum of programs, Pennsylvania has made progress, but we still have gaps in service.” Ms. Dichter continued, “This brings me to my third and final point — the organization of early education programs and resources needs to make sense. Our families do not care what we call the programs whether it’s Keystone STARS, Child Care Works, Head Start, PA Pre-K Counts, or something else. Parents and taxpayers want to have confidence in the responsiveness and quality of early education services and that public investments are made efficiently and are well-leveraged.” 
 
Outlining several policy issues, Gina Adams, senior fellow at the Urban Institute, said, “In recent decades, policymakers have become increasingly aware of these issues, and of the importance of investing in early childhood education and child care, and have made significant steps forward in this area. The most recent evidence can be seen in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 [P.L. 111-5], in which Congress invested significant additional resources into both the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) and Head Start in an important commitment to children. But, unfortunately, there is still more work to do. One challenge is that despite the increasing policy interest and awareness of the importance of investing in good quality early education services, most of the efforts to invest seriously in helping families access good quality care have focused primarily on Head Start and pre-kindergarten services as the delivery mechanisms. The good news is that these efforts have indeed produced good programs for children, particularly when provided the funding and incentives need to support quality. However, while it is important to keep investing in, and expanding, these initiatives — as they only serve a fraction of the eligible families — it is also important to realize that our focus on primarily supporting quality through these programs has inadvertently created a somewhat patchy system of quality, with some major gaps…On the other hand, the Child Care and Development Block Grant is the major federal program that reaches each of these groups — specifically, it serves children from birth through age 12, supports low-income working families, and is used in a wide range of the early care and education settings used by families. The growing awareness of policymakers of the importance of helping working families to afford care had led the program to grow since its inception, and most recently to get additional resources in the stimulus package. The CCDBG has been quite effective at helping millions of families across the country afford child care so that they can work.” 
 
Dr. Lillian Lowery, secretary of Education for Delaware, detailed some of the programs available to families in Delaware: “As we have learned more about the importance of brain development during the early years, there has been a renewed commitment to work together in public/private partnerships to increase the number of young children entering school prepared to succeed. Through strong leadership, federal, state, corporate, and private resources have been blended to develop a combination of universal and targeted programs and supports from birth through kindergarten. For example, the parents of every baby born in Delaware receive the Growing Together portfolio, a collection of valuable information ranging from a five-year calendar customized with Delaware contacts to a Read Aloud book to start early literacy. For first-time parents, there is a targeted service with a home visit by a nurse soon after the baby comes home. The nurse links at-risk families to additional supports, such as the Parents as Teachers program, a monthly home visit from birth to age three by certified parent educators.” In explaining other aspects of Delaware’s early childhood program, Dr. Lowery added, “Subsidized child care reimbursement rates have improved, and the goal is to tie those rates to Delaware Stars quality ratings as additional resources become available. In 2005, the legislature increased its focus on early learning by creating the Kids Caucus, a bipartisan group of legislators focused solely on young children and their growth, development, and learning…Full-day kindergarten is another important component in Delaware’s expanded efforts to ensure academic preparedness and success for all children. State funding for full-day kindergarten has increased each year with almost all public elementary schools offering this to families in their communities.” 
 
Susan Russell, president of Child Care Services Association in Chapel Hill, NC, also testified.
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