Last Year Was Big For Early Childhood Education Funding. What Lies Ahead for 2015?

The past year saw major philanthropic organizations and national policymakers coalesce around a shared goal of expanded access and greater support for those critical early years in a child's education. The question going into 2015 is whether that momentum can be sustained.

The final weeks of 2014 brought some early holiday gifts for early childhood organizations and advocates. President Obama unveiled his Invest in US initiative, blending more than $1 billion in federal and philanthropic spending aimed at EC programs.

Funders supporting this effort include the LEGO Children's Foundation, the Walt Disney Co., the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Chicago philanthropist J.B. Pritzker, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and the Kresge Foundation. Together, these funders put $330 million into Invest in US, complementing the $750 million in federal Education and Health and Human Services funding. The First Five Years Foundation will run the program. 

More significantly, the 2015 fiscal year budget agreement reached by the outgoing Congress boosted child care funding to states by $75 million under the Child Care and Development Block Grant. Couple this with a $1.4 billion increase in EC funding earlier in the year, and 2014 ended on a high note for EC advocates and educators. However, election results and the loss of some key congressional allies to retirement raise the question of whether the past year's gains will prove to be only fleeting.

The 2014 midterm elections placed both houses of Congress in Republican hands, which could spell trouble for President Obama's $75 billion Preschool For All initiative. The GOP leadership has been skeptical about greater funding for early childhood education programs they see as unproven.

What's more, the new Congress will be without two important champions of early learning. Senator Tom Harkin, who chaired the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, is retiring. Harkin introduced the Strong Start Act, which would greatly expand access to pre-kindergarten for low- and moderate-income children. Harkin's likely successor as committee chair, Senator Lamar Alexander, opposes the Strong Start Act and prefers to combine existing EC programs into block grants, giving states discretion in how to spend the money.

On the House side, Representative George Miller retired from Congress after 40 years in office. Miller was the ranking Democrat on the House Education and Workforce Committee and sponsored the House version of Strong Start.

While these retirements and electoral changes will not leave EC without its congressional champions (Senator Patty Murray is a former preschool teacher and a longtime advocate of federal funding for early learning), they do mean significant opposition to adding new EC programs or increased funding for existing efforts.

Which brings us back to the recent momentum from philanthropic organizations. In the face of freezes, or even reductions, in federal funding for early childhood education, educators and advocates of early learning will be relying on funders even more to help fill in the gaps. Fortunately, many appear willing to do so. Michigan provides a good example. The Detroit News reported that while the state was not slated to receive any of the $250 million in education grants under Invest in US, two Michigan-based funders—Kresge and Kellogg—have committed more than $25 million to build quality early childhood programs in Detroit.

The First Five Years Foundation and its supporters employ a multi-level approach to EC funding, supporting projects and advocacy at the national, state, and local levels. This strategy may supply the blueprint for EC funding in 2015 and beyond.

The potential exists at the state level for strong public-nonprofit partnerships around EC funding. Pennsylvania Governor-elect Tom Wolf made universal pre-K a part of his election platform. Ballot initiatives in Seattle, San Francisco, and Denver called for fundng to expand pre-K access. So while action at the federal level may be limited, prospects are encouraging for alliances between state and local policymakers and funders to expand access to quality early childhood education.