Strong Start for America's Children Act

Floor Speech

Date: May 20, 2014
Location: Washington, DC

Madam President, the question is not whether but how best to make early childhood education available to the largest number of children.

The approach that I am offering is quite different than the Democratic proposal.

Last year this time around, the Senate HELP Committee held a markup on another bill which was the Senate Democrats' proposal to reauthorize No Child Left Behind.

I said then that over the last decade, the combination of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Obama administration's use of waivers has created a congestion of Federal mandates and rules that amount, in effect, to a national school board for elementary and secondary education.

The proposal that the HELP committee approved last year on a partisan vote would have ``doubled down'' on those mandates by setting performance standards, giving the Secretary of Education the authority to tell 100,000 public schools what their standards and tests should look like, how to measure their students' progress, and how to evaluate their teachers. And I said, then too, that if we wanted anyone to serve as chairman of the national school board, Arne Duncan would be a terrific one but Congress has said repeatedly that we don't want a national school board.

Unfortunately, the bill that Senate Democrats are proposing today has a familiar ring to it. It would, in effect, create a national school board for 3- and 4-year-olds.

It would spend $27 billion in new funding over 5 years with Washington making the decisions about how States should run their preschool programs.

For example, it includes a lot of requirements for States that I don't think the Federal Government has ever even attempted with elementary and secondary education, such as: determining teacher salaries--that all preschool teachers be paid at a rate that is comparable to K-12 school teachers; class sizes, student-teacher ratios--class sizes can't be larger than 20 children, the ratio of students to teachers may be no higher than 10 to 1; length of the school day--a minimum of 5 hours or as long as a typical day in the K-12 system.

Never before, not even in No Child Left Behind, has the Federal Government told school districts in Maryville or Murfreesboro or Memphis how to run their schools in such detail.

The bill also includes requirements that sound a lot like what hasn't worked so well under No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and waivers, such as: that States must ensure that preschool teachers have a bachelor's degree in early childhood education--sounds a lot like the Highly Qualified Teacher provision; that States must establish early learning and development standards and age appropriate standardized tests aligned to the State's academic standards under No Child Left Behind, which for more than 40 States now means Common Core.

Furthermore, that these standards, curriculum, and tests must be: developmentally-appropriate; culturally and linguistically appropriate; address all domains of school readiness, including physical well-being, et cetera.

Then there are an assortment of vague requirements on States, which will depend on the Department of Education issuing hundreds of pages of regulations and guidance of histories to define and implement, such things as: vision, dental, and health services; mandatory family engagement such as parent conferences; nutritious meals and snack options--what they consist of; physical activity programs that are evidence-based according to guidelines; evidence-based health and safety standards; regular classroom observations and coaching for teachers.

Finally, the bill also includes new maintenance of effort standards. We know what happened with those in Medicaid, during the last 5 or 6 years.

As State economies tumbled, States were forced to continue to spend more on Medicaid by maintenance of effort requirements. And that resulted in less money for higher education and driving up tuition rates.

Washington would pay 90 percent of the program's cost for the first year for the Democratic proposal, but the required share of State spending will increase each year, eventually half the bill to Governors after 8 years. And that also has a familiar ring.

Sounds a lot like Medicaid, where the State average is about 43 percent and most of the rules are Federal, even though the States pay nearly half.

What has happened with that model? Well, when I was Governor in the 1980s in Tennessee, Medicaid was 8 percent of the State budget. Today it's 30 percent of the State budget.

Americans don't want a national school board. We'd like to move in a different direction. I'd like to take, as an example of why we should, the testimony of a witness at a HELP Committee hearing on this issue.

Superintendent John White of Louisiana testified that the ``greatest barrier to achieving these conditions that we want in early childhood education--no less than financial resources themselves--is the fragmentation of our country's early childhood education system.''

He went on to say: ``You can't claim to be providing full access and full choice when you have separate centers, separate funding streams, separate sets of regulations that literally require no coordination in the offering of seats, even within the same neighborhood.''

That's the situation in Louisiana, and the Government Accountability Office says it's true around the country.

Forty-five different programs support early education and child care. Thirty-three of those permit the use of funds to provide support or related services to children from birth through 5. Twelve programs have the explicit purpose to provide childhood and preschool or child care services.

Then there are 5 tax provisions that subsidize private expenditures in the area of early childhood and preschool programs.

This year, Congress appropriated roughly $15 billion for the 12 programs explicitly focused on early childhood, Head Start, Race to the Top, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and the Child Care and Development Block Grant.

And then there's another $3 billion in tax credits.

An earlier witness before our committee estimated that when you add up the 33 programs, the total Federal spending in this area is now about $22 billion.

So, we believe a better way to give all children the best early learning experience is to provide States with the flexibility to use some or all of the more than $22 billion in Federal money that we already spend and allow States to use it in the way that best suits their needs.

Under my proposal, Superintendent White would be able to take Louisiana's share of the $22 billion that the Federal Government spends on early childhood and preschool programs--about $300 million--and do just that. In Tennessee, we'd have about $440 million a year.

If we were given this kind of flexibility, we could increase the vouchers for child care from 39,000 to 139,000; or the State-funded voluntary preschool program, from 18,000 4-year-olds to 109,000. Or we could expand Head Start, from 17,000 children to 56,000 or some combination of that. We could create Centers of Excellence and otherwise leave to Tennessee to figure out what works best for Tennesseans.

So, the question is not whether, but how best to make early childhood education available to the largest possible number of children. The answer to that question is to not create a national school board for 3- and 4-year-olds to go along with the one we've effectively established for K-12 education.

That is why I opposed the Democratic proposal and instead offered a proposal to enable States to take responsibility for developing the early learning systems that best meet their needs and to use up to $22 billion of existing federal dollars to help fund that.