Strong Start for America’s Children Act Moves Forward in Senate

By Stephanie Schmit

Today, the Senate passed the Strong Start for America’s Children Act out of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee. The Strong Start bill would establish a partnership between state and federal governments to equip states to improve and expand high-quality, full-day preschool programs for four-year-olds with the goal of increasing school readiness. It would also establish Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships that would bring high-quality infant and toddler care that meets Early Head Start standards to many more children.   

High-quality early education experiences are widely recognized as key to preparing young children for school success and improving the lifetime employment and earnings of low-income children. In addition to children and families, our society as a whole bears a large cost burden for children not equipped to succeed in life. The Strong Start Act would help equalize the opportunities children have at the starting gate. In particular, the following components of the bill would advance high-quality, comprehensive early care and education access for children across the country by:

  • Setting clear expectations for high-quality services including high staff qualifications and developmentally appropriate and evidence-based curricula and learning environments.
  • Providing critical supports to increase the educational attainment of the early childhood workforce.
  • Addressing the needs of low-income working families by allowing schools, Head Start and child care settings to offer pre-kindergarten and establishing expectations for the provision of full-day services and comprehensive health services.
  • Providing for partnerships between Early Head Start and child care programs to ensure that more vulnerable infants, toddlers and their families have access to the comprehensive early education and family support services that are the hallmark of Head Start.
  • Building on existing state structures by providing funding to help states expand access and improve the quality of existing state pre-kindergarten programs. Because a variety of early education settings are needed to meet different families’ needs, schools, Head Start programs, and community-based child care can compete for resources to provide quality care in communities that need it. States will also have the flexibility to use funds for quality improvements, and to serve infants and toddlers.

Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) offered the sole amendment by introducing a substitute bill, the “Early Learning Innovation and Flexibility Act of 2014,” which was defeated in the mark-up.  This Act would have given states the option to combine funds from the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG), Head Start, Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) Part C and Preschool grants, up to 3% of Title I of Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) child care funds. States would have had to use the combined funds to pay for early learning programs, including child care assistance, preschool and/or full-day kindergarten. The bill did not establish quality standards widely regarded as essential for ensuring that children benefit from effective early childhood programs and would actually have prohibited the federal government from setting standards related to early learning. The Act would have set eligibility at 130 percent of the federal poverty level, restricting access for many children currently eligible for preschool and child care in their states.  Since there was no new money included in the bill introduced by Senator Alexander, it simply reallocated resources -- rather than dealing with the real gaps in the current early childhood system – and allowed sharp reduction or even elimination of  quality standards in the name of state flexibility.

Passage of the Strong Start for America’s Children Act would be transformational for children and families and early childhood systems. It would expand access to high-quality child care and early education services for the youngest, most vulnerable, low-income children and families in the country.

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