EDUCATION WEEK (March 29, 2017) -- When the Trump administration released its budget blueprint earlier this month, it noted that early care and education ranked among its "highest priorities." But the federal preschool program Head Start was a notable omission in the few pages devoted to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees Head Start.
A complete budget proposal is due from the administration in May. And Congress, which controls the federal purse strings, often follows its own priorities—even if they differ from those laid out by a presidential administration.
Keeping that in mind, early-childhood advocates are gearing up to make sure their issues are at the forefront when lawmakers start making tough spending decisions, and they're drawing attention to the bipartisan support that early-learning programs have garnered.
For example, on March 16, the same day that the Trump budget outline was released, the House panel that oversees HHS conducted a hearing on "investing in the future." Rep. Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma and the chairman of the subcommittee, started the session with praise for public investment in early-childhood education. "High-quality early-learning programs are the starting point to closing the achievement gap," he said. "These critical programs, combined with high-performing K-12 schools ... can provide the foundation for students to become successful leaders of the next generation."
The hearing was a bright spot in the midst of the "disconcerting news" generation by the Trump budget outline, said Yasmina Vinci, the executive director of the National Head Start Association, in a statement. The hearing reflects the subcommittee's "continued commitment to ensuring every child has the opportunity to pursue the American Dream—regardless of circumstance at birth."
In September, Head Start revamped its performance standards, cutting red tape and setting a goal for all Head Start centers to offer a full school day and year. To implement the program expansion without cutting slots for children, Head Start would need a funding increase of about $1 billion over its current $8.6 billion budget. The new rules allow the expansion plans to be held off at the discretion of the HHS secretary.
Working for Continued Home Visiting Funding
Supporters of home visiting are also hoping that Congress will reauthorize their program. The Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting program was originally funded at $1.5 billion for five years through the Affordable Care Act. It was renewed in 2015 for two years and $800 million when it was added to a Medicare doctor-payment bill.
That money is also about to run out, and a home-visiting coalition is now seeking a five-year reauthorization, with funding increases until the program reaches $800 million.
Home visiting offers in-person support to at-risk families. "Regular visits by caring, experienced professionals and trained peers can help parents turn their good intentions into good, solid parenting and coping skills," said Karen Howard, vice president of early-childhood policy at First Focus and co-convener of the coalition.
The Trump budget blueprint does not mention home visiting, but the program is also one that has won bipartisan support. Rep. Kevin Brady, a Republican from Texas who is chairman of the powerful Ways and Means Committee, has called home visiting an evidence-based reform that works.
Working Early-Childhood into Tax Reform
Earlier this year, before the tax blueprint was released, a group of advocates worked together on a tax reform proposal that could make paying for high-quality child care more feasible for lower-income families.
The group is still supporting those ideas, but doesn't want the idea of more direct funding to early-childhood programs to slip to the wayside, said Mark Shriver, the president of the Save the Children Action Network. The proposed cuts to HHS and to international development programs overseen by the State Department could be "catastrophic to families," the network said.
But in an interview, Shriver said that it's important to remember that no president's proposed budget passes without changes.
"President Trump talked about making investments in America. This first budget blueprint or outline shortchanges poor kids and families all across America. But I think this is an outline. This is not going to be the final budget," Shriver said. "Both the House and the Senate have a role, and I am hopeful that the final product will strengthen programs that work, and will move the country forward."