Photo: Alessandra Hartkopf for Strategies for Children

Federal and state governments spend roughly $13 billion a year on early education and care through four federal funding streams administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Education. A new report from the Center for American Progress (CAP) offers recommendations to address the “conflicting expectations, misaligned system requirements, and programmatic firewalls” that come from relying on such disparate funding sources.

Head Start, funded at $7.6 billion in fiscal year 2011, provides services to roughly 900,000 children from low-income families. Child Care Development Block grants, funded at $5 billion in FY11, support child-care services for roughly 1.7 million children of working low-income families. Federal funds from the Elementary and Secondary Education Act can be used for early learning services and typically fund pre-kindergarten. The Individuals with Disabilities Act provides $811.8 million in services to approximately one million children under age 5 with developmental delays.

“[A] lack of coordination means that our federal investments are neither operating as efficiently nor as effectively as possible. As a result we are missing the opportunity to increase the number of young children who enter kindergarten with the skills, knowledge, and dispositions necessary for school and lifelong success,” the center states in “Increasing the Effectiveness and Efficiency of Existing Public Investments in Early Childhood Education: Recommendations to Boost Program Outcomes and Efficiency.”  (Full report   /  Introduction and summary)

The report likens the federal Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge to President Kennedy’s challenge in 1961 to send a man to the moon, and its recommendations, as Ed Week notes, “echo the priorities” of the ELC. Synthesizing input from its advisory committee on early education (members listed below), CAP recommends that the federal government:

1. Partner with states to align early learning standards that define expectations for all early learning programs.

2. Invest with states to build assessments and assessment systems that demonstrate standards are being met.

3. Increase consistency, quality, and system-wide access to federally procured and federally required locally procured technical assistance.

4. Implement a more consistent, state-of-the-art approach to high-quality professional development for existing staff and help determine the optimal set of skills and knowledge that should be imparted in preparation programs for early childhood program staff.

5. Improve early childhood data and harmonize reporting requirements to help increase knowledge of inputs and outcomes.

6. Promote the replication of successful strategies to build continuity from early childhood programs to kindergarten and continue to remove data and other bureaucratic barriers to successful continuity systems.

7. Build more federal, state, and local capacity to meet the increasing demand for culturally and linguistically appropriate services for children who are dual-language learners.

8. Close the gaps in universal developmental screening across all federally supported early learning or care programs.

9. Require expanded early learning program participation as a means of boosting performance of failing elementary schools.

10. Establish a permanent office that creates a common infrastructure to advance system reforms for both the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Education.

In recommending assessment systems aligned with standards, for instance, the report encourages a dual focus on both children’s development and program quality. It looks at kindergarten readiness assessments. “Given the fact that the pace of learning varies markedly among young children, the purpose of these assessment systems should be explicitly to improve instruction and assure progress toward a child’s development of the full complement of skills needed for academic success by the end of third grade,” the report states.

Regarding underperforming schools, the report recommends that the Department of Education require schools’ improvement strategies to include efforts to enroll incoming kindergartners in high-quality early education programs and full-day kindergarten. “Such a strategy,” the report notes, “may require the district to make funds available to boost the quality of services available in surrounding early childhood development programs or, in some cases, to create additional high-quality early learning slots or require that existing high-quality slots focus on enrollment from the future kindergarten cohorts of the targeted elementary school.”

The report also urges state and federal governments to expand investments in high-quality early education.

“While it is clear that federal funds provide early learning opportunities to a large number of America’s poorest children, it is also clear that additional federal and state financing is needed to further expand access to high-quality early learning programs to even more children,” the report states. “Not only must we expand access to early learning, we must also improve the quality of the current system in order to vastly improve the overall impact of our national investment in early education.”

The report’s lead author is Donna Cooper, a senior fellow in economic policy at the Center for American Progress who is a former deputy mayor for policy for the city of Philadelphia and a former secretary of policy and planning for Pennsylvania. The center developed its recommendations with guidance from an advisory committee of nationally recognized leaders in early childhood.