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Our Latest Work to Advance the President’s Early Learning Agenda

The Administration has repeatedly called for significant new investments at the state level to expand access to high-quality early learning.
President Barack Obama and a young student touch fingers during a visit to the Community Children's Center, one of the nation's oldest Head Start providers, in Lawrence, Kan., Jan. 22, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
President Barack Obama and a young student touch fingers during a visit to the Community Children's Center, one of the nation's oldest Head Start providers, in Lawrence, Kan., Jan. 22, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

In his third month in office, President Obama gave a speech outlining his agenda to provide every American a complete education that would make them competitive in a global economy. The first pillar of that agenda was to raise the bar for the early childhood programs that we currently administer and to make new investments in high-quality early childhood education. Over the past seven and a half years, the Obama Administration has made significant progress on both fronts.

Over the past month, the Department of Health & Human Service (HHS) completed important reforms that will improve each of the two largest federal programs dedicated to providing access to early education: Head Start and the Child Care Development Fund. The federal investment in these two programs is more than twice the amount that all the states combined spend on high-quality preschool and account for the provision of services to more than 2 million children under the age of five. These two rules were the last areas of significant policymaking related to early learning in the President’s term.  

On September 1st, HHS released a comprehensive revision to the Head Start Program Performance Standards, which set forth the requirements that all 1,700 Head start programs must follow to support the healthy development of our 926,000 Head Start kids each year. Currently, nearly 60% of children in Head Start attend a program that offers less than a full-day, full-year of service. The new standards will better serve the children and families by making key changes to the program, including a new expectation that, in time, all Head Start children will have the chance to receive full-day, full-year, high-quality services that help increase and sustain children’s gains.

This improvement, along with the many others based on the best available research and evidence, builds on the extensive work of the Obama Administration to ensure only high-quality programs serve children and that the needs of our most vulnerable children are served first and where our returns on investment are highest. 

And last month, HHS released a regulation to revise the rules that guide the implementation of the Child Care & Development Fund (CCDF). CCDF is the largest federal program for child care assistance, providing families with the support they need to afford child care while they work, seek work, or get needed education and training. The program currently serves approximately 1.4 million children, more than half of whom are preschool-aged.

Congress passed a bipartisan reauthorization of the program nearly two years ago, incorporating a number of the health, safety, and quality reforms the Administration had been advocating for since 2010. This regulation implements that legal change and will strengthen a number of critical provisions in the law to ensure: children are in safe and healthy environments; parents receive the information they need to make well-informed choices when seeking care; families are able to access care for a sustained period of time without fear of losing their subsidy due to unforeseen changes in their income or work status; and children are in settings of high-quality that will encourage their healthy growth and development. Significantly, while the child care rule deals solely with the implementation of the federal child care program, states often construct their systems of child care monitoring, licensure, and quality improvement based on what is required by the federal program, meaning that the federal rules will likely benefit a far greater number of children than solely those served through CCDF.

Beyond these actions, the Administration has repeatedly called for significant new investments at the state level to expand access to high-quality early learning. In his 2013 State of the Union, President Obama called for a new federal-state partnership to provide access to preschool for all children. Since that time, we have seen a marked increase in both the number of states offering preschool and their levels of investment in preschools. At the time the President made his call to action, 39 states offered preschool. Now all but four do. In total, states have increased their investment in preschool by $1.5 billion since 2013.

We have also seen a commitment from Congress to expand preschool. After the President’s call to action, Congress provided a down-payment through the Preschool Development Grant (PDG). Since the 2014 school year, PDG has supported eighteen states in their effort to establish or expand high-quality preschool access to an additional 33,000 children in more than 200 high-need communities. Congress further expressed its support for PDG by codifying it in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), a law President Obama signed last December to replace No Child Left Behind.

In addition to calling for preschool for all three- and four-year olds and high-quality care for all infants and toddlers, the Obama Administration has increased investments by over $6 billion in early childhood programs from fiscal years 2009 to 2016, including high-quality preschool, Head Start, early Head Start, child care subsidies, evidence-based home visiting, and programs for infants and toddlers with disabilities.

Even with these advances, our nation has much further to go to ensure that all children have access to high-quality early learning programs. Only 41% of our four year olds and 16% of our three year olds are served in state or federally-supported preschool settings.  And we must provide additional resources to better compensate the early childhood workforce. As a nation, we cannot say that we are truly valuing the importance of early childhood development when the median annual wage for child care providers is so low that in every state, this wage makes you eligible for public benefits, like SNAP. And we know that in a majority of states the average cost of providing care for an infant or toddler outstrips the cost of in-state tuition at a public four-year university. Except unlike higher education – where there are robust state investments and several forms of federal assistance to pay for the cost of college – early childhood expenses are largely borne by the family during a period of life where they are least able to afford it. Consider a working family having to balance those costs alongside their expenses for housing, food, and transportation. 

Despite these challenges, there is cause for optimism given the growing interest in states and communities around making investments in high-quality early learning, the bipartisan commitment shown in Congress around advancing this critical issue, and the improved standards we have integrated into our federal early childhood programing.

This work related to improving child outcomes is vitally important, not only because the research around the benefits of high-quality early learning is clear, but more fundamentally because it is the right thing to do for our children and families. The more we do to ensure children who need care are in settings that nurture their healthy growth and development, and that families receive the support they need to allow them to work with peace of mind, the better off we will be as a nation.

Mario Cardona is a Senior Policy Advisor for Education in the White House Domestic Policy Council