As part of the War on Poverty, President Lyndon B. Johnson championed passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1965, enacting what would become the nation’s prominent public education law. Over 50 years later, the ESEA has undergone multiple iterations, and in late 2015 latest reauthorization to the ESEA passed into law with overwhelming bipartisan support. The new law, known as the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), replaces the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2001. ESSA prioritizes equal access to education and closing opportunity gaps, and now for the first time, Congress incorporated early learning across the law and established an important new initiative, the Preschool Development Grants program. Although NCLB permitted grantees to make early learning investments, ESSA significantly elevates early learning’s importance in the law by promoting service coordination within communities; encouraging greater alignment with the early elementary grades, and building early childhood education knowledge and capacity among teachers, leaders, and other staff serving young children.
Among ESSA’s many important early learning provisions, the new Preschool Development Grant program (PDG) is the most significant. Though identical in name to the U.S. Department of Education grants made to states in 2015 and 2016, ESSA’s new Preschool Development Grants program provides competitive grants, managed jointly by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Education, for states to improve coordination, quality, and access for early childhood education for low- and moderate-income children from birth to age five. The first program of its kind in any iteration of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, ESSA’s PDGs aim to increase parent choice and includes a focus on supporting high need and rural communities. Funding this legislative win would allow states to leverage the newly-authorized PDGs to strengthen state efforts toward building strong early learning systems aligned with K-12 education and improve transitions from early learning programs to kindergarten. Championed by Senator Isakson (R-GA) and Senator Murray (D-WA), ESSA’s preschool program will replace the U.S. Department of Education’s legacy Preschool Development Grant Program, which provided greatly needed funding the past two fiscal years for state development and expansion of access to high-quality pre-k for 4-year-olds from low-income backgrounds.
In addition to the improvements described above, ESSA also shifts significant policy decisions to states, which could help promote greater early learning alignment and coordination with elementary school. These changes will enable states to develop better systems for identifying and improving the nation’s lowest performing schools, including using high-quality early learning strategies to promote school improvement. In combination with the early learning’s elevation throughout the law, states will be able to use these statutory improvements, and related federal funding, to support work they are already doing further their early learning goals.
ESSA paves the way for new and stronger federal-state-local partnerships that invest in early learning as a critical component to closing persistent opportunity gaps. As the new law’s implementation continues, FFYF is committed to helping states and school districts understand and use the law. FFYF has a plan to work closely with leaders tasked with understanding and effectively using the opportunities to improve program quality, access, family engagement, school improvement and other provisions to ensure that more children from low-income families can access comprehensive early learning opportunities and arrive ready for kindergarten on day one.