On Wednesday, Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Reps. George Miller (D-CA) and Richard Hanna (R-NY) will introduce legislation to expand preschool and high-quality childcare across the country. Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and at least seven other Senate and House members will also support the bill.
According to a draft, the bill would expand early childhood education from birth to age five over a decade. It would give states funding to expand preschool to all four-year-olds in low-income families who earn below 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Line, or about $47,000 for a family of four, based on the number of children that would be served. States would also have to qualify by meeting quality standards and by already providing state-funded Kindergarten. The states would start out having to match 10 percent of the federal money and then increase that match to an equal share by the 10th year, although the match would be reduced for those that serve half or more of their eligible four-year-olds. If a state achieves universal access to preschool for four-year-olds, it could then start working on serving three-year-olds so long as that access remains for the older children.
The bill doesn’t just address preschool, but also high-quality childcare for infants and young children. States could set aside 15 percent of the money for high-quality education and care for infants and toddlers. It would authorize a new partnership between Early Head Start and those who offer childcare to improve the quality of the care while changing the block grant that supports childcare so that it can raise the quality and ease eligibility. The Department of Health and Human Services would also convert Head Start programs that currently serve low-income four-year-olds into programs to serve three-year-olds and younger.
The draft would propose $1.3 billion in funding next year for the program, which would increase to $8.7 billion next year.
The bill comes after President Obama proposed a universal preschool program in his State of the Union address this year. He later released a budget that included $75 billion in new funding over the next decade to enact a “preschool for all” plan that would start by partnering with states to provide all low- and moderate-income four-year-olds with access and then incentivize them to expand to reach all other children.
Universal preschool has gotten support from Democrats and Republicans alike on the state level. Seven states, both red and blue, are working on universal preschool programs, including Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Maine, New York, Oklahoma, and West Virginia. Legislation has also been introduced in Indiana and South Carolina, and Michigan’s Republican governor requested an additional $65 million in his budget to expand early learning. Meanwhile, 70 percent of Americans support providing all low- and moderate-income four-year-olds with access to high-quality preschool, including 60 percent of Republicans.
Yet the United States falls far behind its peers in early childhood education. On the whole, states are spending the lowest amount per student in Pre-K in a decade. The country ranks at number 21 globally in the percentage of GDP it spends on preschool. Just 69 percent of American four-year-olds and 51 percent of three-year-olds are enrolled in early childhood programs, ranking the country at numbers 26 and 24 among its peers, respectively. Childcare costs are on the rise, with full-time center care for two children coming to more than rent in all states and putting an infant in childcare more than what the average family spends on food, yet subsidies to help cover the care are declining.
But the benefits of access to high-quality learning at a young age have been well documented. Chicago’s universal preschool program has been found to generate $11 in economic benefits for each dollar spent, and studies of other programs have found $7 in long-term savings for each dollar put in. Investing in preschool has been proven to increase social and economic mobility, increase human capital and GDP, and reduce societal and economic costs in a child’s life later on.