Senate Democrats Push Universal Pre-K Amendment For No Child Left Behind Fix

CREDIT: Carolyn Thompson, AP

Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey (D) is offering an amendment to the bipartisan rewrite of No Child Left Behind that would provide universal pre-K for five years. The amendment would close the corporate tax inversions loophole in order to fund it.

That would provide around $30 billion in funding, which Casey’s office based off of the $33.5 billion that would be saved if the Stop Corporate Inversions Act of 2014 passed. The act would have made it more difficult for companies to move their tax-reporting address overseas and avoid U.S. taxes. The legislation was referred to House Committee on Ways and Means.

The amendment, called the Strong Start for America’s Children Amendment, would be a big win for Democrats, who have considered universal pre-K an important, yet unresolved priority. The Obama administration pushed for universal pre-K in 2013, but found that Republicans considered the plan for funding it, which included a tax on tobacco, to be a nonstarter. It has not advanced through Congress. Pre-K struggled to reclaim its place on the education agenda since then.

But it’s found its way back into the national spotlight after governors and mayors across the political spectrum have begun focusing more on pre-K programs. Hillary Clinton made universal pre-K the subject of one of her first major policy speeches.

Moreover, universal pre-K is more politically tenable than other, much more controversial policy stances, since 70 percent of Americans support using federal money to expand high-quality preschool programs are available to all children, according to a 2014 Gallup poll.

The $30 billion would be distributed through block grant funding. It would go to four-year-olds from low-income families, or families who earn $48,000 for a family of four. States that provide high-quality universal pre-K to 4-year-olds already could extend their programs to 3-year-olds. States receiving that funding would provide subgrants to school districts, licensed child care settings and Head Start programs that must live up to certain standards such as having teachers with high qualifications and are paid like K-12 teachers, have small class sizes and evidence-based instruction for children, among other requirements.

Despite some renewed efforts at the state level, pre-K funding is still way too low, however. Pre-K funding has risen slightly in the past couple years but many states’ pre-K programs still aren’t funding at pre-recession levels. State pre-K funding per child rose by $61 from 2013, to $4,125, according to National Institute of Early Education Research’s report, “The State of Preschool 2014,” and 4 percent of 3-year-olds and 29 percent of 4-year-olds were served in state-funded pre-K programs. The need for higher standards is clear as well. Forty percent of kids in pre-K had programs that met less than half of NIEER’s quality standards.

Last year’s report showed that for the first time since NIEER reported on pre-K programs in 2002, the number of children enrolled in those programs fell in the 2012-2013 school year, with 9,160 fewer four-year-olds in pre-K programs.

It’s important to ensure low-income families have access because they are the least likely to attend preschool. According to a 2013 report from the Center for American Progress, nationwide preschool enrollment increased to 74 percent among 4-year-old children and 51 percent among 3-year-old children but the lowest-income and most disadvantaged children are the least likely to participate in preschool programs. Low-income children are often the students who need preschool the most, because without it, they are more likely to drop out of school and get arrested for violent crimes and are less likely to attend college.