Last week, I traveled to Washington, DC, along with 16 other advocates for early childhood education from North Carolina. We attended a public policy forum, sponsored by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC). “NAEYC's mission is to serve and act on the behalf of the needs, rights, and well-being of all young children with primary focus on the provision of educational and developmental services and resources.”
We spent a day in intensive sessions, learning all we could about specific issues and concerns affecting early childhood at a federal level. What are what are those issues? Find out below the fold.
Head Start & Early Head Start
This comprehensive approach to early childhood education has been around since for four decades now. I actually did part of my student teaching in a Head Start program in West Virginia in 1980-81. Head Start provides a range of services to children ages 3-5 (preschoolers) and their families. In 1994, Congress created Early Head Start to provide similar comprehensive services for pregnant women, infants, and toddlers, and their families. Current federal funding levels allow only 3 out of 5 eligible preschoolers (source: NAEYC) to enroll. Only 3% of eligible infants and toddlers are enrolled.
Effective in 2003, the administration required all 4 and 5 year olds to be assessed with the National Reporting System – a test developed by the administration to ascertain the effectiveness of the Head Start programs. I can understand this from a business perspective. From an educator's perspective, this is totally inappropriate. 4 and 5 year old children should not be tested for performance. It would be far easier to assess the program with the Environment Rating Scales, which were developed right here in NC, and measures the quality of the classroom, curriculum, and the interactions of the teachers with the children. There is a bill now in the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, S 556, that if passed would remove the testing requirement from Head Start. Early childhood advocates from both sides of the aisle support this bill as written.
Child Care & Block Development Grant/Child Care & Development Fund
At the Federal level, this chunk of money is called the Child Care & Block Development Grant. (CCDBG) It gets awarded to the States based on many different factors, including how much money in “matching funds” they can show they spent, as well as population. When it reaches the States, it’s called the Child Care & Development Fund. (CCDF) Many people in the field use the terms interchangeably, and of course, we never use full words to describe the funds, just initials. I guess all professions have their own lingo. The CCDBG is confusing, because there is a mandatory part that is reauthorized on a five-year basis, and a discretionary part that is renewed every year by appropriations committees. It’s the discretionary portion that most concerns those of us in the field right now. If the discretionary portion is fully funded, then programs like for early childhood subsidies won’t be pitted against funds for early intervention for children with special needs (for example.) As early educator Joan Lombardi told us at our forum: “We want it all. It’s all important.”
Higher Education Act.
Higher Education? What do a bunch of preschool teachers care about higher education? Well – it’s really quite simple. One of the most important things we can provide to children in child care and preschool programs are qualified teachers. Currently, the only educational requirement to work in child care in North Carolina is that one be over 21 years old, and a high school graduate. The average child care provider nationwide makes approximately 9.76 per hour. In North Carolina, the average for child care worker is 8.06, and 8.78 for preschool teachers. For most of our child care work force, the cost of a college education is out of reach with out the Pell Grant, Stafford and Perkins Loans, among others. Some loan programs, such as the Perkins loan program, can be “forgiven” if the borrower works in certain fields or in certain geographic areas for a period of time after graduation. K-12 teachers in schools low-income schools and Head Start teachers can have their loans forgiven. Teachers in private child care cannot. Obviously we'd like to see that change, as well as see additional grants and other incentives available to an industry that is so essential to the economy, but so underpaid and undereducated.
Elementary & Secondary Education Act (ESEA)
This one is has been around since 1965, is now commonly known as “No Child Left Behind”. (Why do I always hear The Imperial March from Star Wars?)
No Child Left Behind – which is the most recent reauthorization of the ESEA, enacted in 2002 – puts more requirements on the states than ever before, particularly in the area of standards, literacy programs, assessment and accountability. I’m sure most of us have heard horror stories about NCLB. Often it get blames for most of the problems in our public schools. In reality, it accounts for only 10% of the funding for public schools.
However, early childhood advocates – all education advocates, in fact, are working to see low-performing schools, in low-income communities, from being penalized by having much needed funding reduced. Rather, these are the schools that need more help, rather than less. Taking funding away from these schools is to me like seeing someone bleeding from the head on the street, handing them a napkin to hold to the wound and walking on. When you come back later, you find that the wounded individual has fallen down, and is now bleeding into the street. Do you call 911 and get the professionals to come in to help? No, you roll them into the street so they don’t mess up the sidewalk. What kind of logic is that? (And by this statement, you will see that I am one of those bleeding heart liberals. Thank you very much.)
So, those were our priorities and concerns. With whom did we get to share them?
Congressman Howard Coble
My first appointment was with Rep. Howard Coble. Two others in the cohort who live in the 6th district and I arrived at his office early and eager to talk to him. Those of you who know me know that I worked hard for his opponent, Rory Blake, this past election season. But I will say this for Mr. Coble: he is quite gracious to his constituents, no matter their party affiliation. Unfortunately, he had conflicting committee meetings (both at 10, when our appointment was set as well) so we spoke with his aide for education. She was very knowledgable on all of our issues, and gratefully took the printed information that we offered, especially the North Carolina specific items we shared. Right at 10, the phone rang. Congressman Coble called to be sure that we were being greeted and taken care of. He listened to our concerns and asked that we leave our business cards and information with his office.
Senator Elizabeth Dole
Our next visit was with Senator Dole’s office. The Senator was unavailable, and one of her legislative correspondents met with all 17 of us. He was quite young, and didn’t know much about early childhood education, so it was a good opportunity for us to educate about important issues. I’m sure that our um, passion, and, well, zeal, made quite an impression on him.
Senator Richard Burr
We left there to go en masse to Senator Burr’s office. He was waiting there to greet us. He is quite a friendly man, and very animated. He listened to our concerns, and spoke with us about the enormous strides NC has taken in Early Childhood (we have, but we haven’t gone far enough). He was spoke a bit about the high school drop out rate in NC, which looks quite high when one views this report. Keep in mind that the data on this report is only for one year, and goes on to state that it does not mean that the number of children that didn’t graduate within 4 years dropped out. It just means that they didn’t graduate with in 4 years. According to the same report, 15% of freshman are held back a year, so the numbers are not as clear cut as they seem at first reading. Nonetheless, the Senator is right to be concerned. We informed him that adequate care and high quality early childhood experiences might help improve the drop-out rate. He was a bit more concerned with getting his message across to us. The reason became clear when I got home and found this on his web page: Burr Introduces “Graduate for a Better Future Act.”
This bill was introduced on 3/6/2007, the day we were traveling to Washington. I should have done better research so that I would have understood why he was so adamant about talking about high school and higher education. We were able to let him know that in-state tuition at UNC-Chapel Hill is less - that’s right, less than it costs to put an infant in child care for a year. Looking just at tuition and fees, a year at UNC-Chapel Hill will cost you approximately 5600 for a year. The same time period of high quality child care (PDF)for an infant in NC could cost you as much as $1180 per month, or $11,800 for 10 months, which to be fair is what you would get if you were wearing Carolina Blue. Of course, most of us can’t stop working to take our children out of child care for a couple of months, unless we are teachers in the public school system, or, I suppose, students at UNC. So assume that it would cost $14160! No, I didn't include room and board with the college tuition, but then, it's not included with child care costs, either. Go figure. No wonder families are reduced to having their children sleep in their cars in the parking lot while they work, or placing them in other illegal child care settings that can be dangerous for all concerned. We need more support for the youngest among us - because a strong early start build better people all the way around. (Stepping off my soapbox.)
Congressman Brad Miller
My favorite part of the visit to Capitol Hill was accompanying one of my colleagues to visit Congressman Brad Miller (NC-13). As I’ve stated here before, I would love to have the opportunity to vote for him. His district intersects the 6th in several places, so you never know, a few more redistricting moves, and I might actually get the chance! Or... dare I say it… nah, that’s for another time.
Anyhow… we rode the underground shuttle back over to the House Office Buildings to meet Congressman Miller. He was still on the House Floor: there were 2 votes left for the day. His chief of staff met with us, and spoke with us at length about early childhood. He is from North Carolina, but has lived in D.C. for 18 years – a wonderful guy. We could tell he was very busy, but he took nearly ½ an hour to talk with us about NAEYC accreditation and what it meant to be sending his son to a preschool that met those qualifications. He asked us about some early childhood initiatives back home, and wanted an update on the Lleandro decision. “Judge Manning’s case”, he called it. He took our information, and agreed with all our concerns. He assured us that Congress this year was much friendlier and willing to listen. Then he gave us good background on how the federal budget process worked He’s terrific – Brad, if you’re reading this, keep him around.
Congressman Miller came in and we could immediately see that he was exhausted, but very friendly, listened to our concerns – by this point in the day, having repeated it for staffers and legislators and each other, we had it down to a science, I think. He showed me a picture that, if it had been taken at a different angle would have included Lovex7, asked how things were going, and posed for pictures with us. As we were leaving, my colleague mentioned that she had to make good time, because she had to take a cab from our hotel in downtown D.C. to the airport – in Baltimore. It was the only flight that she could get. She knew that the cab was going to cost her upwards of $60, but she didn’t think she had much choice. Brad’s chief of staff said, wait a minute, you can take the train, it’s easy, and a lot cheaper. She said, well, I don’t know how to do that. He spent another 5 minutes or so searching the Internet for train schedules, rates, etc. He printed the schedule out, highlighted the train she had to take, and told her what to ask for when after she took a $6.50 cab ride to Union Station. Fantastic constituent services!
The trip was more exhilarating than I can put into words, and yet I could write so many more. To be at the center of our government with like-minded people, and realize that you have at least some access to the people in power makes a young (or not so young) girl’s heart beat a little faster – and not just from all the walking. Unfortunately, we were so caught up in meetings and more meetings, and it was so cold, that we had no time to visit the other shrines of democracy, like the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial (my favorite), or the Supreme Court. But I discovered that Amtrak only costs $43 ($38 if you’re a member of AAA) to go one-way to D.C. It takes approximately 6 hours to get there, and instead of driving, stressing out over the price of gas, and getting tired, I got to read, relax, and actually see the countryside I was passing through. I loved every minute of it, and it gave me lots of ideas for other blogs - when I get a few more hours in the days and a few less to-dos to go in them.