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Strong Start Legislation Kick Starts Effort to Expand Early Learning Opportunities

Today, the country took a great step forward for children and their families with the introduction of the Strong Start for America’s Children Act, which would significantly expand high-quality early learning opportunities for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. The bill, which is sponsored by Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA), Representative George Miller (D-CA), and Representative Richard Hanna (R-NY), would increase access to high-quality preschool for four-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families through state-federal partnerships. The bill would also increase access to high-quality infant and toddler care. 

Under the legislation, states would receive funds to serve four-year-olds from families with incomes at or below 200 percent of poverty. (Once a state or community made preschool available to all of its eligible four-year-olds, it could use the funds to serve three-year-olds from families with incomes at or below 200 percent of poverty.) Preschool programs could be provided in a range of settings, such as schools, child care centers, or Head Start programs. All providers would have to meet certain standards to ensure a high-quality experience for children, including setting small class sizes and low child-staff ratios, having well-qualified and well-compensated teachers, providing professional development for teachers, operating on a full-school-day schedule, offering evidence-based curricula and learning environments, conducting ongoing monitoring and program evaluation for continuous improvement, providing comprehensive health and nutrition services, and encouraging family engagement. 

To qualify for funding, states would have to meet certain requirements, including having — or working toward having — comprehensive early learning and development standards, prekindergarten data linked with elementary and secondary school data, state-funded kindergarten, coordination among early childhood programs, comprehensive early learning assessments that are culturally, developmentally, and age-appropriate and that are used for program improvement, and performance measures and targets to track the state’s progress in increasing children’s school readiness. 

States could use up to 20 percent of their funds in the first four years for quality improvement, including for scholarships and other supports to help teachers receive their bachelor’s degrees. States would be required to match federal funding at a rate equal to 10 percent of the federal funding they receive in the first year, rising gradually to 100 percent in the eighth year. 

The legislation recognizes that it is essential to foster children’s learning and growth starting with the earliest years. States have the option of using up to 15 percent of their early learning funds to support high-quality early care and education for infants and toddlers. In addition, the bill establishes grants for partnerships between Early Head Start and child care programs to expand high-quality services for children through age three. The grant program focuses on meeting the needs of parents working full time and encouraging coordination among early learning programs. 

This legislation offers a promising opportunity to help children and families and hopefully Congress will take advantage of it. Given the research showing the importance of the early years to children’s development and learning and the overwhelming evidence that high-quality early care and education increases children’s chances for success in school and in life, benefits families, and bolsters our entire economy, the real question is why we haven’t taken action long before now. We’ve already lost enough time, and we can’t afford to lose any more.