Last week, the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee held a hearing on the Strong Start for America’s Children Act, a bill that would help expand state pre-K programs. While there is support among Senate Democrats for the bill, there is less among Senate Republicans. Instead, Senate Republicans want to streamline existing programs and give states much more flexibility in their provision of birth-to-5 early education programs.
Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), ranking member of the HELP Committee, called the Committee’s attention to a February report from the Government Accountability Office that was discussed during a House Education and Workforce Committee hearing on early care and education programs. The report cites 45 programs that allow funds to be used to support services for children birth-to-5. During the hearing, Alexander argued that, “Total federal government spending today [on early childhood programs] 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.” He went on to say he believes there are better ways to spend this money and that we don’t need one more program with the Strong Start Act.
Not so fast. The 45 programs listed include ones such as Transitional Housing Assistance for Victims of Domestic Violence and the National Farmworker Jobs Program. Many of the programs cited have a number of varying purposes and missions, touching many more policy areas than just early care and education. The National School Lunch Program, for example, provides meals to low-income children–and while being hungry can be a huge impediment to learning, it can hardly be said that that program’s dollars are being spent in the same way as the Title I Grants to Local Educational Agencies program, which funds classroom resources and teachers for low-income PreK-12 students.
Alexander noted that the report identifies a dozen federal programs as being explicitly focused on early education or child care. All told, the programs cost the federal government $14.2 billion in fiscal year 2012. But even in citing that narrower list of programs, both Alexander and the GAO are conflating very different programs–with very different missions.
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