Last week, Eduflack detailed the long and distinguished list of “losers” in the FY2011 Continuing Resolution and the ongoing budget fight between the White House and Congress. All those billions that both sides had to cut needed to come from somewhere and, unfortunately, education was unable to avoid the knife.
Fortunately, President Obama made it easy for those looking to nip and tuck from the ED budget. In the previous two budget cycles, Obama offered up lists of programs to either be eliminated or consolidated in the ED budget. Those programs eliminated were often cited for a lack of efficacy. Those consolidated into a potential competitive grant program were victims of a new world order when competition is king, and the dollars for a competitive process needed to come from somewhere. So if the President wasn’t going to protect specific education programs in his own budget, it made them easy pickin’s for an opposition Congress.
But it seems there was a bit of good edu-news in the CR after all. Yes, we saw increased in Race to the Top ($700 million), Investing in Innovation ($150 million), and Promise Neighborhoods ($20 million more). But there was also some interesting policy language inserted into the CR.
While campaigning in 2008, Obama often spoke of the importance of early childhood education. Good ECE and good parenting were the cornerstone to his child development plans. But that rhetoric never seemed to translate into real policies. Parental engagement continues to lag, despite both authority and funding under NCLB. And although ECE offered real promise in 2008, the realities of state budget cuts have stymied expansion plans, with ED and HHS relatively unsure of who should actually take control of moving strong, evidence-based ECE into practice. At least until last week, say the experts.
Buried in the wording regarding the additional $700 million for RttT is language that adds a new priority to ED’s prized RttT. ED, along with early childhood education advocates, are touting the addition of “Improving Early Childhood Care and Education” as a RttT priority and something Race dollars can now fund. (Always the skeptic, Eduflack must admit that I’m still not completely sure how this differs from the original Priority 3: Invitational Priority — Innovations for Improving Early Learning Outcomes, but I must just be hung up on the language of the language.)
This is potentially a major step forward for ECE in two ways. First, it opens up new funding streams. While it doesn’t provide specific, dedicated ED funds for ECE, it does confirm that RttT dollars can be spent on early childhood education. ECE can now be a fundable component of those grants seeking a piece of the $700 million in extra pie. And one could even make the case of adding ECE efforts to the current RttT winners’ effort.
More importantly, though, the language addition signals a general commitment — from both the Administration and the Congress — that early childhood education is a key component of the educational continuum. We turn around low-performing schools, in part, by better preparing kids for school in the first place. We address the dropout and remediation problems by ensuring that kindergartners are not starting the formal learning process a year or two behind some of their classmates. We make a difference by providing instructional building blocks early and often, finally declaring that ECE, if done correctly, is more than just babysitting on the cream and the clear.
While there is still much work to be done to build up our national commitment to high-quality early childhood education, the new RttT language is definitely a start. Add some significant dedicated funding, and we might really have something here.
UPDATE: So sometimes a priority just isn’t a priority. Per my confusion about Priority 3: Invitational Priority versus this new priority in the CR. As it has been explained to me, the Priority 3 is the “absolute, competitive and invitational priorities” in the original RttT applications. The new priority, on improving early childhood care and education, added a new priority to the RttT authorization statute. So early childhood now joins 1) maintenance of effort; 2) achieving equity in teacher distribution; 3) improving collection and use of data; 4) standards and assessment; and 5) supporting struggling schools.