Last week, early childhood advocates from across the country came together in Washington, D.C., to learn from each other and talk with partners focused on federal policy connected to our local work. While there, I was able to meet with Oregon Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici and staffers for Oregon Congressman Earl Blumenauer and Oregon Senator Ron Wyden to talk about how Congress is making decisions that can directly improve the lives of young Oregon children and their families.
The most timely issue right now is the Congressional appropriations process. Congress is negotiating a budget that will set funding levels for critical early learning programs serving children in Oregon. The current debate centers on whether to lift proposed spending caps on non-defense domestic spending – including funding for early learning programs like Head Start and preschool, childcare subsidies for working parents and child nutrition programs. Currently none of these important programs can meet the need among children and families. Oregon’s childcare subsidy program has a long waiting list. And only 55 percent of 3- and 4-year-olds eligible for Head Start in Oregon can be served. A full 32,000 children from low-income families in Oregon don’t have access to high quality preschool.
Increasing spending in these areas is a wise and cost effective investment. Children having access to quality preschool alone returns $8.60 in societal benefits for every $1 spent. We hope Congress makes early learning a priority for new investments, as the 2015 Oregon Legislature just did.
Other things I discussed with my early learning colleagues last week:
ESEA Reauthorization:Last week, the U.S. Senate was busy debating proposed legislation to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (formerly known as No Child Left Behind). The Senate last Thursday approved reauthorization by an overwhelming 81-17 vote. While the law largely focuses on K-12 education, revisions in the latest drafts do add explicit language that emphasizes some federal education funds can be used for early learning programs. The proposal also includes a new competitive grant preschool program, but it is unclear whether it will be funded. We were disappointed the Senate did not adopt Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey’s amendment that would have provided $30 billion in federal funding for universal preschool for 4-year-olds across the nation.
Child Care: Congress recently reauthorized the Child Care Development Block Grant program, which provides funding to states to help working parents afford childcare. A number of changes were made to the law to improve the safety and quality of childcare funded by the grants. In Oregon, where a large percentage of children are cared for by unlicensed family, friend, and neighbor providers, implementing the newly required home visits and background checks on all of these providers is important but also expensive. We were glad to support the Oregon Legislature’s recent $47 million increased investment in childcare to cover these costs, serve more families, and support improved childcare quality. We hope Congress similarly expands funding to meet these increased requirements.
Home Visiting:This Spring, Congress approved a two-year extension of funding for the Maternal Infant Early Childhood Home Visiting program. Oregon has won three rounds of funding from the program, which has allowed hundreds of new at-risk parents across Oregon to receive the real-time support they requested from experts in child development – a strategy that has been proven to increase school readiness and reduce child abuse. This was an opportunity to thank these lawmakers for their support.
The Oregon legislative session that just wrapped up was very successful for Oregon’s young children. But my visit to Washington underscored how important federal programs are as well to improving early learning throughout the nation. It’s that combination of good work – at the local, state and federal level – that can improve early learning and give all young children a better chance of success.