Blog: The Educated Reporter

Sen. Murray Touts New Early Childhood Bill

A new U.S. Senate bill aims to greatly expand early education nationally for children birth to five.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington) made the announcement during a speech Tuesday on early education at the Center For American Progress, a think tank in Washington, D.C. The proposed law would closely follow the pre-K program envisioned by President Obama earlier this year.
Three other senators, all Democrats, were cited as fellow writers of the bill, including Tom Harkin of Iowa, chair of the Senate committee that oversees K-12 education.

Murray was short on specifics but detailed the tenets of early education policy important to her, such as universal access to all children, small classes that work on students’ behavioral and cognitive development, preschools that have close working relationships with local school districts, and family support provisions for families on shaky financial ground.

[EWA Podcast: Early Childhood Education: Not All Options Are Created Equal]

In her remarks, Murray said, “Inside-the-beltway brinkmanship affects families and communities all across this country … Because while we have been focused on threats of default, government shutdown, and the impact of sequestration,  other countries are thinking far down the road—and rightly investing in their workers’ skills and knowledge.”

She also gave a nod to the early learning programs in states with Republican governors like Oklahoma, New Jersey and Georgia.

A spate of studies has emerged in recent years highlighting the benefits of a broad early education system, particularly among poor children. High quality pre-K models can expose needy students to the building blocks of literacy and math, researchers say, which can benefit those students as they move up in grade level. Other studies show that early education for poor students can improve qualitative attributes like behavior and perseverance, thereby reducing their risk of dropping out of high school, ending up in prison, and languishing in unemployment later in life.

[See EWA's Story Starter on Early Childhood]

However, some groups warn against federal intervention. The Heritage Foundation released a report critical of the federal government’s track record on K-12 education spending, also noting the major early childhood program—Head Start—took a bruising in a recent government study measuring student gains through the third grade. But a Brookings report earlier this year argued a near-universal early childhood program would add $2 trillion to the economy by 2080, at a cost of $59 billion. States don’t necessarily need the federal government to bankroll their thrust into expanded early education for three- and four-year olds. A report from two Federal Reserve economists calculated state investment in such programs can lead to a rate of return of 16 percent.

But quality among early childhood programs remains an issue. A 2012 report from the Government Accountability Office determined the pay for child care staff and preschool teachers ranged from $11,500 to $18,000. Half of child care workers had a high school degree or less, while the same was true for a fifth of preschool teachers. And earlier in the year The New Republic ran a story documenting the lax state standards governing child care centers that in some instances contributed to child fatalities, according to the magazine.

[Watch this video of Nobel Laureate James Heckman discussing the research on early education at EWA’s National Seminar]

Yet while the U.S. promises a free education to virtually all students old enough for kindergarten through 12th grade, its enrollment of three- and four-year olds in pre-K programs lags behind other countries. Just 51 percent of three-year-olds and 69 percent of four-year-olds attend some form of early education program, according to a May report from CAP citing recent data from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). The same report found France had 100 percent enrollment for both ages; South Korea was at 78 and 82 percent, respectively; and Russia enrolled three out of four of its four-year-olds.

Some of countries that run more expansive early learning programs also beat the U.S. on international assessments for 15-year-olds, while others did not. Russia, for example, trailed the U.S. on reading proficiency in the 2009 PISA exam, the most recent figures for the OECD-administered test. Korea, meanwhile, scored far above the U.S. in reading, math and the sciences. France and the U.S. were virtually tied in all three major subjects.

[Our exclusive webinar with OECD will highlight findings from the organization’s 2013 Education At A Glance report, today at 12:30 p.m. EST]

If the plan Murray announced resembles the president’s, spending will likely be its biggest roadblock. The White House’s proposal to fund its $75-billion package—a 94-cent cigarette tax—was anathema to Republican lawmakers in Congress. And while a handful of Republican governors are sympathetic to rolling out bigger early education programs, they balk at new taxes.

Still, as chair of the powerful Budget Committee in the Senate, Murray has major sway over which bills can see the fiscal light of day. If she can’t convince her colleagues to support her plan, several smaller early learning bills that were introduced in the past year may have a fighting chance of getting through Congress. A summary of those bills can be found here.

But with the gargantuan immigration bill consuming the patience and will of federal lawmakers, and renewed congressional budget talks to keep the government funded around the corner, an early ed bill could disappear.