Last Thursday, President Obama signed into law the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), marking a rare bipartisan, bicameral collaboration between Congress and the White House. While ESSA contains several departures from past authorizations of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, two of its new additions focus on early childhood education, marking a historic commitment to the youngest learners.
First, ESSA roots the Obama Administration’s Preschool Development Grants competition in federal law. This competition began in 2014 with the aim of supporting states in creating and expanding public preschool programs. ESSA continues this effort by authorizing $250 million in grants each fiscal year from 2017 through 2020 to bolster state plans for enhanced coordination among early care and education programs; strengthen transitions between early learning and K-12 education; and maximize parental choice. Grants will prioritize school readiness among children from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds.
Second, in a far less-discussed provision of the law, ESSA requires a review of all federal early childhood education programs. This review aims to eliminate program overlap and fragmentation, assess the use of preschool development grants, and recommend to Congress ways to streamline federally funded early childhood education initiatives. This provision fortifies the Early Learning Interagency Policy Board and encourages continued collaboration between the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Building on recent preschool expansion
The preschool development grants and federal review provisions of ESSA reflect growth and diversification among public preschool programs since the last reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
Due to state-led efforts as well as initiatives like the Preschool Development Grants competition, enrollments in state pre-kindergarten nearly doubled between 2001 and 2014 (the most recent year available). Such expansion has reshaped the landscape of early care and education. While estimates suggest that 22 percent of center-based programs were located in public schools in 2000, new evidence from the National Survey of Early Care and Education demonstrates that 33 percent of center-based programs serving children birth to age 5 are now found in public schools.
ESSA responds to this new landscape by encouraging states to better align early childhood and elementary education, particularly around the transition to kindergarten. ESSA also aims to assist states in developing plans to use early care and education resources more efficiently to increase access, raise quality, and improve children’s school readiness outcomes.
Through its required federal review of early childhood education programs, ESSA also addresses the increasing frequency with which individual preschool providers braid and blend public funds. For example, nationwide, just 27 percent of early care and education programs serving children through state pre-kindergarten serve only children through state pre-kindergarten. The remaining 73 percent of programs combine state pre-kindergarten funds with a mix of parent tuitions, Head Start dollars, subsidies awarded though the Child Care and Development Block Grant, local government allocations, and other sources of funding. Each public funding stream can come with a laundry list of operational and reporting requirements, quality standards, and accountability mandates—many of which conflict with one another. By encouraging a systematic review of federal early childhood education programs, ESSA has the potential to resolve misaligned requirements and reduce administrative burden on providers.
In a recent interview, outgoing Secretary of Education Arne Duncan touted the law’s focus on early learning first among its many new provisions. He also tied investments in early childhood education directly to the pursuit of educational equity. ESSA highlights lofty goals for public preschool. The next step will be designing rigorous research and evaluation studies to ensure those lofty goals are realized—and that every preschool student does, indeed, succeed.