The Every Student Succeeds Act: a half-full or half-empty glass for early education?

Early education advocates’ responses to the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, or the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), have ranged from enthusiastic to ambivalent. Here, the Alliance for Early Success offers our perspective and reflects on implications for our work.

From an early childhood perspective, there’s cause for celebration. More so than ever before, early childhood educators, program directors, and policy leaders should be able to see themselves in our nation’s most significant public education law, moving us closer to a P-12 system. As ably analyzed by our colleagues at New America, the new law more explicitly includes young learners, from birth through age 8, and their teachers as potential beneficiaries of federal funding for compensatory education (Title I), improving teacher and leader quality (Title II), English Language Learners (Title III), charter schools, and literacy education. For example, school districts can use Title II funding to help teachers and principals better understand how to work with, assess, and generally “meet the needs of students through age 8.” Early childhood programs, along with school districts, are also eligible for federal funds to implement “high-quality comprehensive literacy instruction” for low-income and disadvantaged children. In fact, states receiving a Comprehensive Literacy State Development Grant will be required to allocate at least 15 percent of those funds to programs that serve children before kindergarten and at least 40 percent to programs that serve children from kindergarten through 5th grade.

Perhaps ESSA’s most dramatic nod to early education is found at the end of the law. Under Title IX, or “Miscellaneous; Other Laws,” is a new section called “Preschool Development Grants.” But before the 18 states awarded federal Preschool Development Grants in 2014 should count on continued funding for the last year of this 4-year initiative, they should read the fine print. (Year 3 funding for these states was included in the Omnibus Appropriations Bill for FY16.) Under this new section, the Secretaries of Health and Human Services and Education are required to administer competitive grants to states to support such activities as developing strategic plans for coordination and collaboration among early childhood programs, conducting needs assessments of program access and quality, and sharing best practices. They can, but do not have to, use these funds to help states expand access to preschool programs. And even if they do, their agencies are not allowed to impose quality standards. Think of it as light versions of the Early Learning Challenge and the original Preschool Development Grants combined, with more emphasis on the goals of the former. So while ESSA authorizes $250 million for “Preschool Development,” the Secretaries will ultimately decide whether any of it will be awarded to states for getting more kids into high-quality pre-k programs.

Where, then, does early education stand under ESSA? More to the point, does the law provide additional resources and incentives for state and local leaders and educators to act on the understanding that (1) children have immense potential to learn in the early years of life and (2) that the achievement gap appears well before kindergarten? The answer is maybe. The codification of the “Preschool Development Grants” notwithstanding, whether states integrate early learning into their federally-funded education reform initiatives is still mostly up to the discretion of state policymakers and education leaders. Will they apply for new competitive grants for early learning? Will they take advantage of funding streams that can be used to support young children’s learning and development?

This brings us to a common lamentation from education experts about ESSA: That the law gives states and local districts too much discretion, and as a result, traditionally-underserved and underperforming students could be left behind. Some state leaders have pledged to not let that happen, but doubts remain. Whether you subscribe to this view or are more optimistic, it’s indisputable that under this new law, state leaders have much more leeway to design their approaches to holding schools and districts accountable, evaluating and supporting educators, and ensuring equitable opportunities for learning and success for all children, including those in early education programs.

The Alliance for Early Success would have liked to see stronger provisions for early learning issues in ESSA – more “shall’s” than “may’s,” if you will. Now, whether state leaders implementing ESSA provisions will “do the right thing” for young children is, in no small part, up to the kinds of organizations that the Alliance supports.  State advocates and national policy groups will need to work with (and when necessary, pressure) governors, legislators, chief state school officers, and other state leaders to leverage the resources, provisions, and flexibility embedded in ESSA to advance early learning. Early learning advocates and experts in states will have to be ready to make the case for allocating ESSA resources for young children and students and to help state agencies and local districts provide technical assistance for using those resources effectively.

At the Alliance, we are committed to working with our partners to maximize the potential of ESSA to promote high-quality early education. Our network of national and state advocacy, policy, and research organizations has the capacity to reach education leaders and elected officials in states across the country. We are determined to ensure that increased flexibility from the federal government leads to increased attention and policy action on behalf of young children, rather than stagnation or regression.

-Albert Wat, Senior Policy Director
Alliance for Early Success

(January 11, 2016)