Fate of Early Learning Challenge Fund remains in doubt

Early learning programs help prepare children for later academic success.
Early learning programs help prepare children for later academic success.

Advocates of early childhood education continue to fight for a federal initiative that was intended to challenge states to develop effective, innovative models that promote early childhood programs.

The program, called the Early Learning Challenge Fund (ELCF), was authorized by Congress in September 2009 but was never funded.

Lawmakers had committed $8 billion for the program as part of a larger bill to overhaul college student aid, but in last-minute maneuvering designed to get the measure to pass in March, the $8 billion in ELCF funding was eliminated from the bill’s final version.

“The Challenge Fund will incentivize states to set high standards [for early childhood] programs and to measure success against those standards,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a February conference call discussing the progression of the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA). “The ultimate goal is that all children will enter kindergarten with the cognitive, social-emotional, and physical skills necessary for success. And they will build on that success as they move through the K-12 system. They’ll eventually graduate and enroll in college and succeed in careers.”

The National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC), which lobbied for the creation of ELCF, continues to hope the program will be funded.

“We are sad to report that, despite a valiant effort by the [Obama] administration, members of Congress, and the early childhood [education] field, the final health care/student loan bill was unable to include the Early Learning Challenge Fund as a result of difficult budget issues,” the group reported earlier this year.

Adele Robinson, deputy executive director for policy and public affairs at NAEYC, said she viewed the improvement of early childhood education as a three-pronged attack that included the creation of ELCF, increases in the child care block grant, and Head Start and Early Head Start funding.

ELCF “would be an important new resource in the starved system of education … and any additional help to states that are trying to push forward [with innovative ideas in early childhood education] is welcome,” she said.

Education Department (ED) officials wrote on the ED.gov web site last year that the years prior to kindergarten are among the most significant in shaping a child’s foundation for learning and school success. Research has shown that a child’s learning begins at birth and takes shape as children are nurtured, challenged, and engaged in high-quality learning environments and in relationships with parents and other caregivers.

Empirical studies have proven that investments in high-quality early childhood education are among the most cost-effective of any investment along the educational pipeline, returning as high as 15 to 17 percent on the investment each year, officials said on the site.

ED and the Administration for Children and Families at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services would administer ELCF collaboratively. The initiative incorporates two funding elements:

Quality Pathways Grants, or awards to high-capacity states pursuing models of reform and excellence in early childhood education. Innovative plans would reflect significant progress toward establishing the elements of a comprehensive, high-quality early childhood program to improve learning outcomes for children, and a desire to take such improvements to scale.

Development Grants, or awards to a population of developing states that show promise for strengthening and expanding their early childhood programs, but who need additional assistance to launch a standards-based, outcomes-driven system.

Some states have made significant progress in shaping and developing early childhood programs, and many have begun to address the conditions necessary for promoting early learning and development. Leading states that have embarked on reform report a need for more coordinated and integrated early childhood education services, and a commitment to accountability and results to ensure that a system with multiple funding streams and settings improves outcomes for all children, according to ED officials.

“Many states are working on high-quality systems that create high standards for education and professional development,” Robinson said. “This fund would ratchet up that effort, which we think is really important, … and [would] move toward meeting the important goal of making sure low-income students are in a high-quality learning environment.”

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