U.S. Stimulus Package Gives Boost to Spending on Early Education

Published April 1, 2009

Education projects outlined in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 were allocated $100 billion, a portion of which will directly fund early education programs.

The bill, which President Barack Obama signed into law in February, includes $2.1 billion for the federal Head Start and Early Head Start programs.

In 2008 more than 900,000 children were enrolled in the federal Head Start program, administered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to provide early education, nutrition, and health services to low-income families nationwide. Early Head Start was created as an extension of the federal Head Start program to provide services to children from birth to age three.

Serious Spending Hike

The $2.1 billion in new funding is a significant increase over the $6.8 billion the federal government currently spends each year on Head Start. Critics argue the increased investment in Head Start will do little to improve children’s academic achievement.

“The bottom line is that large investments in Head Start and state universal preschool programs have had very little compelling impact on student achievement, from fourth-grade reading scores to high school graduation rates,” noted Lisa Snell, director of education and child welfare at the Reason Foundation, a policy research group based in Los Angeles.

“As a nation we have made a huge investment in early education, with more than 70 percent of our four-year-olds attending some form of preschool, yet 12th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress scores, SAT scores, and graduation rates remain flat or are declining.

“The new education stimulus money for Head Start and child care offers zero fundamental reform for Head Start programs or K-12 education and will be unlikely to improve outcomes for American students,” Snell said.

More to Come

Capitol Hill watchdogs expect more federal preschool bills to follow in this Congress.

Several legislative proposals already have been introduced, including two Senate bills (the Ready to Learn Act and the Early Education Act of 2009) that would help states establish universal preschool programs. In the House a similar piece of legislation, H.R. 555, has been introduced. It would likewise assist states in implementing universal preschool.

Need, Benefits Questioned

Don Soifer, executive vice president of the Lexington Institute, a policy research group based in Virginia, questions the need for further federal expansion into early education.

“Private-sector or faith-based providers are offering 80 percent of America’s early childhood and daycare programs. When you consider that some of these federal proposals would exclude or displace these, the potential certainly exists for them to do more harm than good in the long run,” Soifer noted.

“Some of these proposed federal pre-K programs that are not targeted toward children from financially disadvantaged households carry enormous price tags,” Soifer added. “From the taxpayers’ perspective, it is hard to see how the benefits justify the vast expense. While it may be politically attractive to include middle-class families in federal pre-K programs, the research is unclear about the educational benefits.”

The 111th Congress will likely consider proposals to expand federal subsidies for early childhood programs. Obama campaigned on helping states move toward voluntary universal preschool and also supports increasing funding for Head Start and quadrupling funding for Early Head Start.

Lindsey Burke ([email protected]) is a research assistant in domestic policy studies at The Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.