Let’s Learn from President Obama’s Early Learning Plan

Tomorrow, President Obama is expected to reveal his budget recommendation for federal fiscal year 2014, which begins October 1, 2013 and ends September 30, 2014.  With his budget proposal is expected more details on his early education plan – a plan that early childhood advocates have been touting since his State of the Union Address in February.  The details that we do know about his early childhood plan include:

  • a new federal-state partnership to expand prek to all middle- and low-income four-year-olds,
  • an Early Head Start–child care partnership to expand access to early learning for children before four-years of age, and
  • expanding evidence-based, voluntary home visiting programs.

While most folks know that the Congressional divide makes it difficult for President Obama’s early childhood plan to gain any real traction, there is some real learning that states can take away from his plan.

First, to get all children school-ready, efforts must begin before kindergarten and even before preschool.  The President has laid out a clear path that not only addresses expansion of preschool for four-year-olds but also a plan that support the nation’s youngest learners – children prenatally through age three.  This is evidenced by his support to expand home visiting and programs targeting infants and toddlers through Early Head Start and high quality child care.  Here in Michigan, we’ve made great strides towards expanding preschool for four-year-olds at-risk of being underprepared for kindergarten but have struggled to keep our other early learning programs up to par.  While we’ve made progress by requiring all state funding to support only evidence-based home visiting programs, these programs continue to serve only a small fraction of all eligible families.  And our child care program continues to be one of the worst among the Great Lakes states and in the nation.  To see maximum benefits from the state’s efforts to expand the Great Start Readiness preschool program, increasing access to other high quality early learning programs before four-years of age is critical.

Additionally, President Obama’s early learning plan has been promoted by both U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius.  This inter-departmental coordination and partnership to move the dime on children’s issues is a huge step in the right direction.  As Secretary Duncan put it, “it’s not too often that you find two government departments with overlapping responsibilities trying to work together hand-in-hand.” Luckily in Michigan, we are perfectly set-up to work across departments to tackle the multiple issues that children and families face.  First, Michigan has the Michigan Department of Education – Office of Great Start whose goals don’t solely focus on educational outcomes but also health and development, since these are critical components to ensure that children can succeed in school.  Additionally, Governor Snyder created the “People Executive Group” to coordinate people issues across state departments including the Michigan Department of Community Health, Department of Human Services, Department of Education, and Department of Civil Rights.  Both of these entities provide avenues to increase inter-departmental coordination and partnership to realize feasible strategies to address Michigan’s unacceptable outcomes for the most challenged children – children of color and children from low-income families.  We know that one sector or one department alone can’t turn the tide for children and families nor should they be solely responsible for doing so.  This type of coordination across education, health and human services is already happening in some local communities in Michigan, but state-level leadership to coordinate across departments can set an example for communities across the state.

On Wednesday, I look forward to hearing more about President Obama’s budget plans to support early learning, and hope that inter-departmental coordination will continue to be a part of his early learning plan.  Perhaps Michigan can take a cue from the federal government and follow in their footsteps.

Learn more about President Obama’s early learning plan on the Michigan Sandbox Party website.

-Mina Hong