New Report Shows Increased Need for Federal Investments in Early Learning

Are there too many federal early learning programs?  This question has been contentiously debated and discussed in Washington, DC for years.  Are programs that simply permit funding for early learning as a part of a larger initiative, such as Title I or English Language Acquisition grants, considered early learning programs?  Should programs that merely mention the importance of early learning – the Appalachian Area Development grants or Donations of Federal Surplus Personal Property program – be considered early learning programs?  These issues have emerged from a 2012 Government Accounting Office (GAO) report.

A “too many programs” argument has been frequently cited as evidence of government waste, overlap, and duplication and a reason not to provide any new investments to support our youngest children achieve success in school.  However, a recent analysis of federal programs conducted by the Departments of Education (ED) and Health and Human Services (HHS) make it clear that the investments in early learning are not meeting the needs of families across the nation and many eligible families are not receiving services.

At the direction of Congress, ED and HHS considered these issues in a new report:  The Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education Joint Interdepartmental Review of All Early Learning Programs for Children Less Than 6 Years of AgeIn the report, ED and HHS reviewed all federal programs identified by GAO and concluded that only eight programs have the primary purpose of promoting early learning for children from birth to age six:

  1. Child Care and Development Fund
  2. Head Start
  3. Early Head Start
  4. Preschool Development Grants
  5. Department of Defense Child Development Program
  6. Part C of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
  7. Part B, Section 619 of the IDEA
  8. Family and Child Education (FACE)

Each program provides critical services for children and families, and they often work together to help meet the diverse needs of children from birth through age five. For example, programs such as Early Head Start and IDEA Part C serve children birth to age three, whereas Head Start, Preschool Development Grants, and IDEA Part B section 619 serve preschool-aged children. While some federal early learning programs serve a similar age span, they have different purposes and offer different services, such as child care and interventions for children with disabilities. Furthermore, half of these programs, including IDEA, the Bureau of Indian Education’s FACE and the Department of Defense Child Development Program, address the needs of distinct populations – children with special needs, Native American families and children of military parents, respectively. These federal investments in early learning aren’t duplicative but rather synergistic and recognize the diversity of children’s and working families’ needs.

As mentioned above, a number of federal programs may allow funding of early learning at the state or local level, but the use of funds for this purpose is not the primary focus and is optional, competing with other priorities for scarce resources. When early learning has to compete with services for older children, early learning often loses out.  For example, at ED, less than three percent of students supported by Title I, Part A funds are enrolled in preschool, and approximately one percent of children ages three through eight are supported by Indian Education Grants to Local Educational Agencies funds.

The report discusses the Administration’s efforts to reduce fragmentation and maximize the current and future investments to increase the quality of and access to early learning for children from birth to kindergarten.  It describes how ED and HHS are fostering coordination and collaboration at the Federal, state, and local levels, including through the voluntary Interagency Policy Board (IPB), to ensure a more effective, efficient, and high-quality system of early learning.

The eight early learning programs discussed in the report receive far less funding than is needed to serve all or even most eligible children or provide the level of resources needed to support and sustain high-quality services to ensure all children have a strong foundation of learning.  For example: Only four percent of income-eligible infants and toddlers are receiving Early Head Start services and only 40 percent of income eligible preschool-aged children are enrolled in Head Start.

We hope you will download a copy of this report and share with policymakers.  It helps us all to understand the complexity of the early learning system and the need for expanding services.

Libby Doggett directs the early learning activities at ED and is the primary  early education liaison with the White House, the US Department of Health and Human Services and other agencies.