Don’t Believe the Hype: Partisan Divide Could Yield Opportunities to Invest in Early Education


Since the midterm elections, headlines and pundits have been screaming that Washington, D.C., is now a city divided. Despite this partisan divide the Republican-led Congress and Obama administration can make progress on early education during the next two years.


They can do this by sweating the ideologically smaller stuff, i.e., supporting preschool and child care work within the annual funding exercise known as appropriations. A recent memo from a bipartisan power duo, a former senior advisor from Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and another from the White House, laid out why supporting early education could help both parties heading into the 2016 presidential elections.


Unfortunately, the memo didn’t spell out how. Luckily, there will be legislative opportunities for the parties to come together and invest in early learning, opportunities that could support President Barack Obama’s policies and appeal to Republicans’ desire to reduce federal control in education policy.


In recent years, President Obama and Congress created a set of education grant programs that support early education around the country. A high-poverty neighborhood in San Antonio, Texas, for example, is using a Promise Neighborhood grant to improve kindergarten readiness. An Investing in Innovation (i3) grant is expanding one of the nation’s most successful and oldest preK-3rd grade programs, Child-Parent Centers, around the Midwest.


These are only two examples of work supported by existing programs. Congress could debate ways to continue these programs that address Republican concern over federal control.


And what about the federal early intervention program for infants and toddlers with disabilities, known as Part C of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act? Part C funding per child is at a 27-year low for preschoolers, according to an issue brief by the Council for Exceptional Children, an advocacy group. Overall, IDEA is only funded at 16 percent of what was authorized by the legislation, the issue brief added.


Hoping for breakthroughs in early education, even in these spending bills, may be more than optimistic. The two parties will surely fight their ideological battles in the budget process. It’s also unlikely that either side will deliver a high-profile victory on early learning to the other, such as enacting Obama’s ambitious preschool plan.


But, they have to make specific decisions about what to fund in the annual appropriations bills, and perhaps within a broader budget reconciliation package. Despite the rhetoric of politicians and talking heads, this is where compromise and progress, known as governing, still happens.


I am not endorsing any particular piece of legislation or public policy, but instead pointing out that there will be plenty of chances to improve early education. Those chances may not land on the front page or cable news shows, but could wind up on the president’s desk.