Feds Preparing to Expand Influence over Nation’s Preschools


Last week, Politico’s Morning Education discussed how the Preschool Development Grants started under the Obama administration for four-year-olds were adding thousands of new early childhood slots around the nation. The report also mentioned, “States also used funding from the program to align roughly 25,000 preschool slots to federal early learning standards.”

Politico based their reporting on a progress report from the U.S. Departments of Education (USED) and Health and Human Services (HHS) that is administering the old grants as they are about to be continued under the new program as codified in the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). States will be able to apply for the new $250 million program starting this month. Despite a good attempt, President Trump was not able to convince Congress to withhold funding for this misguided program in last year’s budget, nor, pending a likely September vote, in this year’s budget.

The problems with this concept are almost too numerous to count, but here are a few of the major concerns. Before getting into detail on the illegalities of this scheme, we should remember the continually mounting evidence, recently discussed here, of the lack of effectiveness as well as the academic and emotional harm.

Now, let’s start with the idea of “aligning” “preschool slots to federal early learning standards.” As has been previously discussed both when ESSA was being debated and when the latest Head Start standards came out, there should not be federal early learning standards. The mere federal incentivizing of the national Common Core standards rightly created a constitutional furor (well-explained in a white paper by USED attorneys Robert Eitel and Ken Talbert).

For example, the General Education Provisions Act (GEPA) clearly states:

No provision of any applicable program shall be construed to authorize any department, agency, officer or employee of the United States to exercise any direction, supervision, or control over the curriculum, program of instruction, administration, or personnel of any educational institution, school, or school system, or over the selection of library resources, textbooks, or other printed or published instructional materials by any educational institution or school system… [Emphasis added]

Yet, the 2007 reauthorization of Head Start appears to be a clear violation of that and other federal laws. Head Start actually mandates preschool curriculum standards in eleven different places in the statute. It also mandates curriculum. For example, the Head Start Act, implemented by HHS, but under the jurisdiction of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce says:

All curricula funded under this subchapter shall be based on scientifically valid research, and be age and developmentally appropriate. The curricula shall reflect all areas of child development and learning and be aligned with the Head Start Child Outcomes Framework. Parents shall have the opportunity to examine any such curricula or instructional materials funded under this subchapter. [Emphasis added]

HHS is a federal department and so their development of and requirement for all curriculum to align to the federal Head Start standards appears to be a clear violation of GEPA. Citizens across the nation rightly rebelled against even the hint of incentivizing federal standards via Common Core in K-12. Why in the world should they accept the overt federal development and control of standards and curriculum in the preschool realm?

Besides being at the least inconsistent with federal law, the Head Start Child Outcomes standards are controversial in and of themselves. There is a heavy emphasis on social emotional learning. Regardless of one’s views on a number of subjects, do we really want the federal government setting standards and norms for children’s social and emotional development, which is the most subjective domain in general and most difficult to accurately assess in young children? Does it have to be a federal standard to discuss gender identity with three- and four-year-olds (see page 27)? Isn’t that the job of parents? Parents should not be accepting this destruction of their inherent autonomy that has been affirmed by multiple Supreme Court cases. There is also clear evidence of efforts to align the Head Start standards with the extremely problematic Common Core standards.

Language in ESSA prohibits the preschool development grants from doing anything that “defines, specifies, or prescribes” among other issues, the following:

  • “…early learning and development guidelines, standards, or specific assessments, including the standards or measures that States use to develop, implement, or improve such guidelines, standards, or assessments”
  • “…specific measures or indicators of quality early learning and care…”
  • “…early learning or preschool curriculum, programs of instruction, or instructional content”
  • “…teacher and staff qualifications and salaries…”
  • “…class sizes and ratios of children to instructional staff”

The ESSA grant language is already inconsistent with GEPA and other federal laws prohibiting federal control, because the new Preschool Development Grants require close alignment to Head Start with its mandated content standards. Therefore the above prohibitions appear to be meaningless — or as Arne Duncan described such language in ESSA that appears to be following the Constitution, “some face-saving things you give up, some talking points you give up.”

Now, while the report language in Politico of the Obama-era preschool development grants bringing pre-K programs in line with federal standards clearly appears to be in violation of GEPA, it is not technically in violation of these alleged restrictions in ESSA, because ESSA had not yet been passed.

How this new, expensive, ineffective, and invasive preschool program is implemented will depend on whether any constitutionalists hired or rehired at USED and HHS since the 2016 elections are able to stand up for the rule of law or whether the Administrative State will continue to hold sway. In the meantime, this is just one more reason for parents to avoid government pre-k and for all citizens to urge their members of Congress to defund this awful program as well as Head Start.

Karen R. Effrem, MD

Dr. Karen Effrem and her husband have three children. She is trained as a pediatrician and serves as national education issues chairman for Eagle Forum and president of Education Liberty Watch.

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