What’s in the Strong Start Bill for Babies?
There’s a lot of buzz about early learning on Capitol Hill these days, especially with the introduction of the Strong Start for America’s Children Act on November 13. The Senate bill (S. 1697), introduced by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), now has 17 cosponsors. The bipartisan House bill (H.R. 3461), introduced by Rep. George Miller (D-CA) and Richard Hanna (R-NY), has added 23 more cosponsors. You can still ask your Members of Congress to join them in support of the youngest learners!
While the centerpiece PreKindergarten program gets the lion’s share of attention, this statement bill in fact recognizes that learning starts at birth and cobbles together a birth-to-five continuum of programs. It is often hard for policymakers to readily grasp how federal programs can address the needs of infants and toddlers. When they hear the word “PreK”, most can visualize what that means—a classroom in a community program or school, with teachers, books, and other equipment, where a variety of activities that seem at least somewhat related to later education are occurring. So the question for four year-olds is: How do we give more of them the opportunity for this experience?
But for babies, a different question must be asked, and the answer is not so pat as for older preschoolers. We don’t (and wouldn’t want to) visualize babies all trooping off to one destination—they are at home with their families, in child care, a few are in Early Head Start. So the question becomes, how do we reach babies who are at risk and their families wherever they are, and support their parents and other caregivers with high quality services in supporting a baby’s earliest learning?
The Strong Start Act takes on this question, as the President’s early learning proposal did, by conceptually linking different approaches to addressing the developmental needs of infants and toddlers. These approaches are: reaching children at home through home visiting; using Early Head Start as the standard for the most at-risk children; and improving child care. A more complete explanation of the bill and its provisions for babies can be found on the Rally4Babies website, but a summary of its major points is below:
- Early Learning Quality Partnerships would expand Early Head Start services through partnerships with child care. The Strong Start bill picks up the President’s proposed partnerships between Early Head Start and child care programs, which would increase the number of EHS-eligible children in child care receiving services that meet the EHS standards. In the process, quality of child care services for other children in the same programs would increase. Many providers would augment their skills and credentials, which will benefit any children for whom they subsequently care. The House bill adopted the President’s proposed $1.4 billion funding level for the partnership program. In a strong statement about the need to support the earliest development and learning of infants and toddlers, the Senate bill upped the proposed funding for this program to $4 billion in 2014. Read our new fact sheets for more info on EHS basics and how partnerships might work.
- Extending the Maternal, Infant, and Early Childhood Home Visiting (MIECHV) Program gets a thumbs-up. The bill includes a “Sense of the House/Senate” that MIECHV should be extended, which might seem to fall a little short of the President’s bold proposal to expand the program. The bill’s sponsors weren’t drawing back from that lofty goal, just avoiding a jurisdictional muddle because MIECHV is overseen by different Committees than the other early childhood education programs in the bill such as Head Start.
The Access to Prekindergarten program would allow PreK funds to be used for improving child care for infants and toddlers. In a departure from the President’s proposal, under the Strong Start bill states could use 15% of their funds for the new PreK program for high-quality early care and learning programs for infants and toddlers. This is an important signal to states that they should be doing more to prevent children from falling behind from the start. In fact, we believe this provision should ultimately be a mandatory expenditure. The bill also requires states to show that implementing the new PreK program, with its possible drain on highly qualified early childhood teachers as well as four year olds who are less expensive to serve, won’t reduce the availability of child care for babies.
What’s next for early learning on Capitol Hill? Attention now is focused on the budget negotiations. The top concern is whether Congress will replace the cuts under the sequester that resulted in a loss of Head Start/Early Head Start services for 57,000 children as well as loss of other benefits to families such as housing assistance. And just maybe the budget conferees will listen to the buzz about early learning and include investments in the workforce of the future.