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Without New Money, Biden Admin. Urges States to Use Existing Funds to Expand Preschool

Unable to offer new money, the Biden administration is hoping states and school districts can serve more children in preschool programs by using a patchwork of different federal funds that are already available.

The Education Department and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services on Feb. 26 released guidelines detailing the range of existing funding streams states and school districts can use for early childhood programming—including district-run prekindergarten, Head Start, and child care—and how the different funding sources can fit together.

The accompanying call to serve more children in early learning programs comes as preschool enrollment has yet to return to pre-pandemic levels and new federal funding for such programs is either drying up or has never come to fruition. At the same time, a number of states are implementing major preschool expansions or proposing them, and could couple federal funding sources with new state money.

In a letter to state officials, the the two agencies highlighted a “mixed delivery” approach that combines different funding streams to serve more kids. The Education Department detailed in a new 28-page document how districts can use Title I to fund preschool programs that serve either all or a portion of local 3- and 4-year-olds.

“Federal funds, when effectively layered and braided, can support greater access to preschool, provide full-day, full-year high-quality services to meet families’ needs, provide adequate wages and benefits to staff, and improve quality across programs,” the agencies wrote in the letter.

New early childhood funds are either drying up or haven’t materialized

The renewed attention to expanding early childhood enrollment follows a number of developments that have limited the funding available to grow, and sustain, early childhood programs—and could challenge some in the coming years to continue serving the same number of children.

President Joe Biden early in his term proposed a $200 billion investment to make free preschool available to all 3- and 4-year-olds, starting in high-need communities. But the ambitious proposal failed as part of the president’s larger Build Back Better plan that never passed Congress.

In addition, a $24 billion program to prop up child care providers during the COVID-19 pandemic expired at the end of September 2023. And a major pandemic-era funding source for school districts that district leaders could opt to use for early childhood, the $190 billion ESSER program, winds down later this year.

On top of that, the federally funded Head Start program is experiencing its highest turnover in two decades, as enrollment in the program for children living at or near the federal poverty level has been declining. A new rule proposed by the Biden administration seeks to raise the pay of Head Start teachers in the coming years, bringing it closer to K-12 teacher salaries, but that could mean new costs. The administration warns in its rule proposal that Head Start programs may have to enroll fewer children to comply with the elevated wage requirements.

“A lot of the field had hopes for Build Back Better, but when that didn’t happen, a lot of states seemed to get renewed energy” for their own early childhood expansions, said Steven Barnett, senior co-director and founder of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

Several states—including California, Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, and New Mexico—are in the midst of long-term expansions of free preschool. Officials elsewhere, including Georgia, Kentucky, and Virginia, are proposing new spending on early childhood.

“There’s a tremendous push in states moving ahead that were not leaders in universal preschool before,” Barnett said, “and as you move forward with universal preschool, the question is, so where’s the money going to come from?”

10 federal funding sources

That’s where the federal agencies’ new guidelines can be useful for state and district officials who might be less familiar with running early childhood programs, he said, both to point out available funding and existing early childhood quality standards they can use.

“It really is the federal government here to help: ‘Well, maybe we don’t have money, or new money anyway. But we can help you figure out how to do this with the existing resources,’” Barnett said.

In their guidance documents released this week, the two federal agencies highlighted 10 different funds and grant programs states and districts can already tap into for early childhood education, including the Child Care and Development Fund, the 21st Century Community Learning Centers grant that supports afterschool programs, and early childhood special education funds through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The Education Department’s guidelines on using Title I clarify that schools can use the money for preschool in the same way they use Title I for other purposes. A “schoolwide program” school that uses Title I funds to set up a preschool can enroll any prekindergarten-age child from the area the school serves. A “targeted assistance” school can only use Title I funds to serve kids deemed at risk of failing to meet academic standards, based on factors that can include income.

Low-performing schools identified as needing “comprehensive school improvement” under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act can also make Title I-funded preschool part of their required improvement plans.

Twenty-one states reported using at least some Title I funds for preschool in 2022, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research’s annual State of Preschool Yearbook.

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