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Obama’s Education Legacy For America’s Youngest Kids: Too Little, Too Late

When Barack Obama ran for president, he claimed that improving early childhood education would be a hallmark of his education reform agenda. Unfortunately, his policies in office have not lived up to that promise. Over the past three years, other education issues—Race to the Top funds for K-12 schools, Pell grants for low-income college students, and K-12 reforms like Common Core standards, teacher evaluation, and charter schools—have all taken priority and defined the administration’s education agenda, with early childhood education falling by the wayside.

Moreover, what efforts the administration has made to focus on the country’s youngest children have been deeply problematic. Take the Early Learning Challenge, a new competitive grant program for states intended to improve early education. When the Obama administration announces the grant winners later this month, it will likely be touting the program’s promise. Upon closer inspection, however, it’s clear that the Early Learning Challenge will probably prove to be too little, too late.

IN THE SPRING of 2011, after years of disappointments, early childhood education advocates became hopeful that the Obama administration was finally ready to adopt a more aggressive federal role in promoting early learning. Of the $700 million included in the 2011 federal budget for Race to the Top (RTT), the administration chose to use the majority—$500 million—to fund a new early childhood-focused RTT competition called Early Learning Challenge. Taking a page from RTT, Early Learning Challenge was designed to award funds on a competitive basis to states with the best plans to measurably improve children’s readiness for school. Some early childhood advocates were moved to euphoria. The First Five Years Fund, a national early childhood advocacy group, called the new grant program “an unprecedented opportunity to make dramatic progress” in improving early learning. White House Education Advisor Roberto Rodriguez told reporters that “We believe this [iteration of] Race to the Top can have the same kind of impact” as the original.

Even before new grant program got out the gate, however, it quickly became clear that its rollout was poorly timed. The administration’s prior RTT program achieved its greatest successes by spurring state legislatures to enact major policy changes—adopting federal standards, raising charter school caps, establishing new teacher evaluation systems—in order to better position themselves to win large pots of grant money. More than 20 states passed legislation to improve their RTT chances.

Early Learning Challenge, by contrast, has spurred only one state, Florida, to take legislative action. That’s because state legislatures weren’t made aware of the program’s details until it was too late. Because congressional budget negotiations dragged on until April, the administration didn’t announce the ELC program until late May and details of the program emerged only in July, after most state legislatures had adjourned. Moreover, the relatively modest amount of money in play (up to $100 million for the largest states) simply wasn’t enough to entice legislatures back into session.

The program has also been marred by a half-hearted public relations campaign. With state legislatures failing take up the issue, and Obama not finding much time to talk about it either, Early Learning Challenge has failed to spark the kind of national debate around early childhood education that Race to the Top did for school reform. RTT was a success not least because the sustained public attention it received produced a ripple effect: The Obama administration managed to turn teacher evaluation, common standards, and charter schools into high-profile issues, fueling state and district policy changes even after the competition ended. ELC, in contrast, has received little mainstream media attention and is virtually unknown outside of early childhood education circles. On the very day 35 states submitted ELC applications, New York Times columnist Nick Kristoff penned a column decrying the Obama administration’s lack of action on early childhood policy—with no acknowledgement of ELC.

Even more troublesome than the program’s poor timing and promotion, however, are the specific quality standards that the Obama administration’s Early Learning Challenge seeks to impose. The grant program was designed to improve quality across the full range of programs serving children up to age 5 through something called “Quality Rating and Improvement Systems” (QRIS). Like restaurant reviews, QRIS assign a star rating to child care and pre-K programs, evaluating them against defined quality standards for things like teacher qualifications, classroom quality, and family engagement. Those ratings are supposed to help parents choose better child care. Also, programs with more stars receive financial incentives, while those with less get help to improve. To compete for ELC money, states must commit to establish a statewide QRIS that includes all publicly funded early childhood programs in the state.

Unfortunately, there’s not much evidence that creating QRIS will produce any significant improvements in children’s readiness to learn. Because many of these programs are relatively new, there is little research on their effectiveness. The research that does exist is not encouraging: A study of Colorado’s acclaimed Qualistar QRIS by researchers at the RAND Corporation found little to no evidence of a relationship between childcare programs’ star ratings and child outcomes.

Further, increased use of QRIS could have a number of unintended negative consequences. Since the proposed rating system places a heavy emphasis on costly inputs like classroom furnishings and teacher education, QRIS could drive up costs at a time when many families are already struggling to afford child care and cash-strapped states are ill-equipped to make large new investments.

Of course, President Obama is right about one thing: Early learning should be the first step to improving America’s school systems. Fortunately, the administration has other, more promising, initiatives, such as new regulations designed to weed out the weakest Head Start programs. Improving quality and outcomes in Head Start, which increases poor children’s school readiness but could do much better, is a critical first step. The administration should also overhaul current federal policies that hinder efforts to improve collaboration and quality among early childhood programs.

But the most important thing that President Obama should be doing is speaking out passionately about the issue, as he once used to do. At the beginning of his term, in March 2009, Obama gave a seminal education speech in March 2009, in which he called investments in early childhood “the first pillar of reforming our schools.” At a time when child poverty is rising, one in four children under the age of five live in poverty, and state and federal programs for young children are under attack, our youngest children are in desperate need for a return of that kind of passion from the president.

Sara Mead is an associate partner with Bellwether Education Partners. She advised states in developing their Early Learning Challenge applications.