The federal government must support school boards in their efforts to provide high-quality pre-kindergarten programs—but must avoid mandates that restrict the flexibility of local officials to meet the specific needs of their communities.
That was the message of Lucy Gettman, NSBA’s director of federal programs, during a briefing session on pre-k issues at NSBA’s Federal Relations Network (FRN) Conference on Monday.
Legislation in the Senate—and proposals under discussion in the House—make clear that lawmakers are interested in raising the profile of early learning programs, she said. One Senate bill would, for example, reconfirm that preschool services are a legitimate use of Title I funds, as well incorporate provisions for the use of Title II and III funds for preschool teacher training.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education seeks to upgrade the role of pre-k programs with plans to create an Office of Early Learning, a step to fulfilling the department’s long-term strategic plan to “improve the health, social-emotional, and cognitive outcomes for all children from birth through third grade.”
One concern for NSBA is that, in their support for expanded early learning opportunities, federal officials don’t mandate programs and onerous regulations—and then fail to adequately support pre-k programs financially.
One concern is spurred by the Early Challenge Grants included in the Race to the Top program, Gettman said. The use of competitive grants threatens the premise of categorical funding that reserves funds for specific policy goals.
Without a separate federal funding stream for pre-k programs, she said, there is a danger that states would divert or redirect funds from existing programs to meet new federal demands for preschool programs.
“We don’t want states to get in the position of redirecting existing education funds from current programs to sustain Early Challenge Grants when lots of Title I-eligible children are not being served. We’re very, very concerned about policies that rob Peter to pay Paul.”
NSBA has been advocating on these issues for some years, and with support from the Pew Charitable Trust, helped found the Pre-K Coalition, a group that involves NSBA, American Association of School Administrators, Council of Chief State School Officers, the two national teachers unions, and other education groups to develop common principals for federal pre-k policy.
NSBA will continue to promote the importance of pre-k services and sound federal policies, Gettman said. And it also will make clear too policymakers that “school districts are in the best position to determine the needs, capacity, and resources of the communities they serve” on issues of pre-k programs.