President Barack Obama is pushing his $75 billion "preschool for all" initiative on top of the $20 billion a year the federal government spends on early education programs.
The Department of Education announced on Oct. 18 that 16 states and the District of Columbia are competing for $280 million in grants for the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge, which aims to improve education for children from "birth through age 5."
Spending on Early Learning Challenge grants has totaled nearly $1 billion in the past three years. The program spent $497.3 million in 2011, and $132.9 million in 2012.
The Early Learning Challenge seeks to "increase the number and percentage of low-income and disadvantaged children in each age group of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers who are enrolled in high-quality early learning programs."
The grants will range from $37.5 million to $75 million, and winning states will be announced in December.
The program is aligned with Obama’s Early Learning initiative that wants to put every 4-year-old in preschool, for which he proposed spending $75 billion in his fiscal year 2014 budget.
"The goal is to enable every American 4-year-old to attend a quality preschool program—one characterized by well-organized learning experiences, guided exploration, art, and storytelling, led by a skilled teacher," a description of the president’s initiative states. "In addition, the Department of Education will work with the Department of Health and Human Services to significantly expand and improve services to younger children."
Lindsey Burke, a senior education analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said it is "incredibly misguided" to propose additional funding for preschool, when the federal government already spends $20 billion a year.
"Not only do we have all of this new spending coming through these Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grants, but we also have 45 early education and childcare programs at the federal level, which, by the way, spend $20 billion annually," Burke said. "So there’s already pretty significant federal intervention and spending on early education."
"We already have three-quarters of four-year-old children enrolled in early education, preschool programs," she said. "So the idea that the federal government would spend $75 billion to create a large-scale government preschool program for all four-year-olds, I think, is incredibly misguided."
In addition to the $75 billion, Obama’s plan would spend $750 million for "Preschool Development" grants for states, $463 million for "Early Intervention Programs for Infants and Toddlers with Disabilities," and $373 million for "Preschool Grants for Children with Disabilities."
A $1.5 billion "home visiting" program—created by the Affordable Care Act—would also be extended an additional 10 years. The program pays for nurses, social workers, and other professionals to make voluntary visits to provide "educational support" to families.
Burke said current early learning programs have proven redundant and ineffective. She cited Head Start, an $8 billion a year program she calls the "poster child" for the failure of federal pre-school programs.
"Head Start has been utterly ineffective," she said. "[Health and Human Services] HHS has said in their evaluation that Head Start has no impact on children’s cognitive ability, the parenting practices, their access to health care, nothing."
"So all of these things that Head Start was supposed to do, the HHS says, ‘Nope. Sorry, there’s no effect,’" Burke said.
"It’s duplicative, it is ineffective and just generally fails to serve the needs of low-income children, which is supposed to be the goal of [these] programs," she said.