What the Trump Administration Could Have In Store for Early Childhood Education

Reviewed by Mary McLaughlin, M.S. SpEd

New presidential administrations almost always result in new policies for federal programs. Federal education policy can have a significant effect on every tier of the American education system, from college all the way down through pre-K. What are the Trump administration’s plans for the American education system and how will they affect preschool programs?

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The Importance of Early Childhood Education is Undisputed

The benefits of early childhood education are increasingly clear and largely undisputed. A RAND Corporation meta-study in 2005 found that nineteen of twenty studies demonstrated favorable outcomes from pre-K education. The benefits ranged from:

  • Improved cognition and academic achievement
  • Behavioral and emotional competency
  • Educational progression and attainment
  • Reduction in delinquency and crime
  • Improvements in health, social welfare, and job market success

Moreover, these benefits extend through adolescence and on into adulthood, making early childhood education an enormously effective investment in the quality of life for those individuals and in the stability and advancement of society in general. Due to these benefits, the RAND study calculated that the return on investment ranged between $1,400 and $240,000 per child… clearly a big picture net gain, not an expense.

DeVos’ Plans for Federal Funding for Preschool Programs Are Not Yet Clear

Right now, more is unknown than is known about plans for education policy. The new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, underwent a contentious confirmation process, but one that touched only lightly on her thinking on early childhood education.

DeVos squeaked through confirmation with a historically narrow margin that required a deciding vote from Vice President Mike Pence in his role as President of the Senate. So controversy over her tenure in the role appears to be baked in. One reason for the narrowness of the vote, cited by several opposing senators, was the lack of depth and detail in her answers to questions about education policy. And one of the few questions she received about early education standards betrayed a lack of familiarity with the role of the Department of Education (discussing the Head Start program, which is actually administered by the Department of Health and Human Services).

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DeVos has no track record in school administration or public policy to draw on, but her lobbying efforts in education do provide some clues. As a major backer of charter schools and school choice movements in Michigan, it’s clear that she strongly supports education privatization efforts. Her general support of Head Start, though it is not in her official purview, also points in this direction, since Head Start grants are available to non-profit and religious institutions as well as public schools.

Should DeVos attempt to roll out voucher programs in pre-K as well as K-12 systems, it is unclear what the potential effects could be. Only a handful of states offer pre-K voucher programs and none have been in place long enough to offer a clear perspective on long-term outcomes and effectiveness.

It’s also entirely possible that DeVos apparent disinterest in pre-K topics will be beneficial to the field—her tenure may focus largely on the K-12 and college subjects that have dominated her interests to date, leaving early childhood education largely untouched.

Not All Preschool Funding Comes From The Department of Education

As noted previously, Head Start, a key federal support program for early education, does not fit under the Department of Education, but instead into the Department of Health and Human Services, so the new DHHS cabinet secretary, Tom Price, will also have something to say about the fate of pre-K education in America.

Like DeVos, Price was not probed deeply on early childhood education topics. Unlike DeVos, however, Price is a former congressman with a track record on at least some of the issues.

As the author of a 2007 amendment to the Head Start reauthorization legislation, Price attempted to shift Head Start funding distribution toward the states and away from Federal control. The amount of money in the grants would not have been altered, but states would have been afforded more flexibility in how to distribute the money.

As both critics and supporters of the amendment (which failed to pass) noted, the outcome of this shift would largely depend on the states themselves. Some, with robust and well-run education systems, would likely flourish; in others, with troubled, under-funded and under-manned systems, early childhood education could all but vanish.

The Word From the Top: Mixed Messages on Early Childhood Education

The official Republican party platform is silent on the matter of pre-kindergarten education. President Trump, during his campaign, did not release any policy papers on education. Public statements he made indicated an opposition to Common Core standards and a desire to do away with the Department of Education entirely.

In the wake of heavy investments made by the Obama administration to specifically increase federal education funding in early childhood education, this will represent an extreme about-face for the Department of Education. The Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge put more than $500 million into early learning programs, helping to boost enrollment in more than 20 states since 2012.

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One gleam of hope in Trump administration policies comes from tax reform plans. Among other reforms, the administration has sought full tax credit for childcare expenses, a move that could encourage more families to put their kids into pre-K programs.

It is also part of the Republican party education platform to reduce federal involvement in education generally, which is in line with President Trump’s public statements about removing the Department of Education. Although this would mean a reduction in available funding, it could also result in more flexibility at the state level.

Unfortunately, regardless of the outcomes, there will be an inevitable period of uncertainty for preschool teachers across the nation. With many higher priorities on the agenda, Congress and the current administration are likely to leave educational issues in limbo for some time before taking concrete action.

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