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The Build Back Better proposal provides money for free preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds. States are required to contribute a percentage and will likely incur costs for workforce development, pay increases and adjusting elementary school curriculum.
The Biden administration’s $1.75 trillion social spending package would provide sweeping investments in early childhood education—creating a partnership with states to offer free preschool for all 3- and 4-year-olds.
The proposal requires buy in from states and would gradually shift 40% of the cost to those that participate. Early childhood education experts said the proposal has the potential to be the biggest investment in preschool since the foundation of the federal Head Start program more than 50 years ago.
Pre-kindergarten education enrollment and the quality of education provided in preschool programs varies widely from state to state. Six states do not offer state-funded preschool programs and nationwide only about 34% of 4-year-olds and 6% of 3-year-olds are enrolled in state-funded programs, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research.
“What this legislation does is create the opportunity for many more states and cities to take this on much more quickly and to create a more level playing field,” said W. Steven Barnett, senior codirector and founder of NIEER.
Democrats in the House and Senate are still negotiating elements of Biden’s Build Back Better proposal, and it’s possible portions of the plan could be altered or cut. But support for universal pre-K is high among both lawmakers and voters.
Biden recently toured preschool classrooms as part of an effort to promote the legislation and touted not only the educational benefits of universal pre-K, but also the economic benefit for families of young children who could save an average of $13,000 in child care costs annually with the expansion.
Expanding Pre-K Access in States
Research has overwhelmingly found that children benefit from attending pre-K. They are better prepared for school, less likely to be held back, demonstrate better cognitive and language skills in kindergarten and have fewer behavioral problems in the classroom.
The latest version of Biden's social spending package would provide $400 billion in funding for expansion of both universal pre-K and child care. Text of the bill does not outline exact amounts that states would receive; rather it would cover a certain percent of the cost for states that choose to expand pre-K. There would be no cost to states in the first three years. After that, federal funding would be scaled back so that states would be expected to cover 40% of the costs by 2027. Funding expires after that and would have to be reauthorized.
In states that do not elect to expand pre-K access, localities would have access to $2 billion a year to pay for expansion of their programs. The bill would also infuse more money into the federal Head Start program—providing $15 billion over six years to increase compensation for Head Start teachers and $10 billion to expand offerings.
The funding to expand pre-K access would be the biggest investment in preschool education since the federal government’s launch of Head Start in 1965, said Laura Bornfreund, director of early and elementary education policy at New America.
“Most states have some type of pre-K but it’s not universal, it’s targeted,” she said.
Three states—Florida, Oklahoma and Vermont—and Washington, D.C. offer universal pre-K while another nine states have universal pre-K policies that are open to all families regardless of income and serve a significant portion of 4-year-olds, according to the Education Commission of the States. Several states, including Virginia and New Jersey, have announced plans in recent years to expand pre-K access, with a focus on “at risk” children or those from low-income communities.
Other Education and Workforce Changes
In addition to increasing the number of children enrolled in pre-K, the Biden proposal would also require states to establish education standards for preschool, increase educator salaries, and implement degree requirements for educators—with exceptions made for those with prior experience and knowledge.
“For some states there will be quite a bit of work to do on the quality side,” Bornfreund said.
Florida’s pre-K program, for instance, is among those considered universal in coverage and enrolls a high number of 4-year-olds but it ranks poorly in terms of funding and quality.
“The funding is all over the map for how much states are paying for pre-K and what those programs look like in terms of quality,” Bornfreund said. “That’s where the federal dollars are really going to be helpful, in terms of quality and access.”
The Biden proposal calls for a mixed delivery model, meaning pre-K providers could include schools, licensed child care providers and Head Start agencies. States will be required to ensure that seats are distributed equitably among those providers and will have to prioritize expansion of pre-K to “high-need communities,” or those with higher poverty rates and lower access to high-quality preschool.
New Jersey, often heralded as a national model for pre-K expansion, provides one such example of how states could roll out pre-K to target high-need communities, Barnett said. The state started by offering pre-K in school districts where 40% or more students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, which included 31 school districts, Barnett said. The next tier of expansion targeted districts where 20% or more students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. After that, the program will expand to all school districts.
Expansion of pre-K will also raise new demands on local K-12 education systems, Barnett said. Children that attend preschool will start kindergarten with better social and cognitive skills and elementary schools will need to adjust their curriculum to support those students.
“Children will be much more capable of project-based learning in kindergarten. They will have better executive function,” Barnett said. “Kindergarten teachers are going to need to be retrained to take advantage of that.”
Investments in Teacher Pay and Training
Ensuring elementary school teachers are prepared and that early childhood educators are well-qualified will take investment in workforce development. To ensure workers are retrained, rather than shut out of jobs when new standards take effect, Barnett said it will be important for states to think about the type of education and training opportunities needed.
“There is going to be a big job in developing the programs to upskill the workforce so they can provide the kind of quality that is expected for the new money,” Barnett said. “Higher compensation will come from the higher quality.”
As a result of the higher demands on educators, the Biden proposal requires that providers pay “a living wage” for staff and set salary schedules that pay an equivalent amount to early childhood educators as elementary school teachers with similar credentials and experience.
“The workforce matters a lot for being able to deliver on the pre-K and the child care piece of the legislation,” Bornfreund said. “The field has to be attractive to educators to be able to go into those roles and stay.”
Andrea Noble is a staff correspondent with Route Fifty.
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