New Preschool Spending an Unnecessary Burden on American Taxpayers

President Obama has proposed spending $75 billion over the next 10 years to create a new federally funded preschool initiative. His fiscal year (FY) 2015 budget proposes spending billions to expand access to “high quality preschool” for every four-year-old child in the country. Legislative proposals in the House and Senate mirror the President’s plan.

Proposals to expand federal preschool programs and spending raise a key question: Does the existing network of federal and state programs and private preschool providers fail to offer access to the low-income families who have difficultly financing pre-K on their own? Is there a need for billions in new spending and new programs?

Existing Federal Programs

The federal government currently operates 45 early learning and child care programs,[1] of which 12 have as an explicit purpose to provide early childhood education and care programs. The remaining 33 programs permit funds to be used for such initiatives.

There are also five federal tax provisions designed to ease the cost of private early childhood education and care expenditures.[2] Some of the largest federal programs and expenditures are described below.

Child Care Development Fund (CCDF). This program includes both the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) and the Child Care Entitlement to States (CCES) program.

The CCDBG was established in 1990 to subsidize the child care costs of low-income families. CCDBG funds are distributed to states according to the proportion of children receiving free and reduced-price lunches. States then provide vouchers to eligible families to enroll their children in child care programs. In FY 2012, federal funds for the CCDBG program totaled $2.3 billion.[3] The CCDBG was first authorized under the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1990 and was last reauthorized in 1996.

The CCES program is authorized under section 418 of the Social Security Act and was last reauthorized in 2005 as part of the Deficit Reduction Act. The entitlement program provides $2.9 billion in mandatory spending along with matching grants to states in order to subsidize the child care costs of low-income families who are working or enrolled in job-training programs.

In all, the CCDF (combined CCDBG and entitlement programs) was funded at $5.2 billion in FY 2012 with approximately 1.7 million children receiving subsidized care under the program.[4] In addition, states can use up to 30 percent of their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funds for CCDF purposes.

Social Services Block Grant (SSBG).Established in 1981, the SSBG provides $1.7 billion to states for child care, health care, and other social services. In FY 2009 (the most recent year for which data are available), 14 percent of SSBG expenditures (including allowed TANF transfers) were for subsidized child care.

Of the $1.7 billion spent on the SSBG in 2009, $110 million went to child care, $12.2 million went to family planning services, and $7.7 million was allocated for pregnancy and parenting programs.[5]

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. TANF provides federal funds to states for a variety of welfare programs, including child care funding. During FY 2012, $2.6 billion in TANF spending was for child care programs.[6]

In all, approximately 2.6 million children receive subsidized child care when TANF and the SSBG are considered in conjunction with the Child Care Development Fund.[7]

Child Care Access Means Parents in School. This program provides federal funding for the provision of child care on college campuses. The program is designed to aid low-income parents in obtaining postsecondary education by subsidizing their child care while in school. The U.S. Department of Education notes that grants may also be used for community child care needs. The program was funded at $14.8 billion in FY 2013.[8]

Head Start. Created in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society initiative, Head Start is a federal preschool program designed to serve low-income children. Funded at nearly $8 billion in 2012, Head Start has received more than $180 billion in taxpayer funding since its inception. Head Start is the federal government’s largest early education and care program, enrolling over 950,000 children during FY 2012.[9]

U.S. taxpayers spent more than $14 billion on the 12 federal programs designed with an express purpose of providing early education and care in FY 2012.[10] When all 45 federal preschool and child care initiatives are included, total federal spending exceeds $20 billion annually.[11] (See the appendix at the end of this paper.)

Existing State Programs

In addition to the labyrinth of federal programs and spending, taxpayers also finance a large network of state-run preschool programs. Forty states and the District of Columbia provide subsidized preschool at the state level.

Eligibility for services varies by poverty status, with some states means-testing enrollment and others providing universal preschool irrespective of family income. Program design also varies, with some states, such as Florida, providing a voucher system (enabling children to use state funds to attend private preschool and child care providers) and other states permitting children to enroll only in public centers.

Private Providers

While federal and state preschool programs are substantial, 80 percent of four-year-old children enrolled in preschool and day care are served by the private sector.[12] An estimated 28 percent of private enrollment takes place in churches, synagogues, or community centers.[13]

Early Education and Child Care Enrollment

At current spending levels by the federal government and states, and with the provision of private preschool and home-based care, most families have already found early education solutions.[14] More than three-quarters of four-year-old children are already enrolled in some form of early education and care program.

Moreover, a large majority of mothers indicate that they prefer to stay home when their children are in their most formative years (up to age four); 80 percent of mothers who work part-time indicate that is the ideal scenario for them. Of all mothers, only 16 percent with young children prefer full-time work, a figure that declined by half from 1997 to 2007.[15] Demand for a large-scale new government preschool program is not evident.

Either Duplicative or a Subsidy

A robust network of subsidized preschool and child care programs is currently available to low-income families who have difficultly financing pre-K on their own. Many state programs even extend to middle-income families, and some are open to children regardless of family income.

With three-quarters of four-year-old children already enrolled, and evidence that most children from low-income families already have access to taxpayer-funded or highly subsidized programs, proposals to expand government preschool would be duplicative of existing efforts at best, or, at worst, a new middle- and upper-income subsidy at a time when deficits are at an all-time high.

—Lindsey M. Burke is the Will Skillman Fellow in Education Policy, and Rachel Sheffield is a Policy Analyst in Domestic Policy Studies, at The Heritage Foundation. Kate Wakeman, a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation, provided research assistance for this paper.

Appendix: Federal Early Learning and Child Care Programs

Child Care Access Means Parents in School (Department of Education). “To support the participation of low-income parents in postsecondary education through the provision of campus-based child care services.”

Indian Education—Grants to Local Educational Agencies (Department of Education). “To address the unique education and culturally related academic needs of Indian students, including preschool children, so that these students can achieve to the same challenging state performance standards expected of all students. This program is the Department’s principal vehicle for addressing the particular needs of Indian children.”

Race to the Top—Early Learning Challenge (Department of Education). “To improve the quality of early childhood programs and to close the achievement gap for high-need children. The RTT-ELC grant competition focuses on improving early learning and development programs for young children by supporting States’ efforts to: (1) increase the number and percentage of low-income and disadvantaged children in each age group of infants, toddlers, and preschoolers who are enrolled in high-quality early learning programs; (2) design and implement an integrated system of high-quality early learning programs and services; and (3) ensure that any use of assessments conforms with the recommendations of the National Research Council’s reports on early childhood.”

Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy (Department of Education). “The objective of the Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy program is to advance literacy skills, including pre-literacy skills, reading and writing for students from birth through grade 12, including limited-English-proficient students and students with disabilities.”

Alaska Native Educational Programs (Department of Education). “To support projects that recognize and address the unique educational needs of Alaska Native students and to support supplemental education programs that benefit Alaska Natives.”

Education for Homeless Children and Youth (Department of Education). “To ensure that all homeless children and youth have equal access to the same free, appropriate public education available to other children, the Education for Homeless Children and Youth program provides assistance to States to: (1) establish or designate an Office of Coordinator for Education of Homeless Children and Youths; (2) develop and carry out a State plan for the education of homeless children; and (3) make subgrants to local educational agencies (LEAs) to support the education of those children.”

English Language Acquisition Grants (Department of Education). “To help ensure that limited English proficient (LEP) children, including immigrant children and youth, attain English proficiency and meet the same challenging State academic content and student academic achievement standards as all children are expected to meet.”

Special Education—Grants for Infants and Families (Department of Education). “To provide grants to States to assist them to implement and maintain a Statewide, comprehensive, coordinated, multidisciplinary, interagency system to make available early intervention services to infants and toddlers with disabilities and their families.”

Special Education—Preschool Grants (Department of Education). “To provide grants to States to assist them in providing special education and related services to children with disabilities ages 3 through 5 years, and at a State’s discretion, to 2-year-old children with disabilities who will reach age three during the school year.”

Special Education—State Personnel Development (Department of Education). “To assist State educational agencies in reforming and improving their systems for personnel preparation and professional development in early intervention, educational and transition services, to improve results for children with disabilities. As used in this program, personnel means special education teachers, regular education teachers, principals, administrators, related services personnel, paraprofessionals, and early intervention personnel serving infants, toddlers, preschoolers, or children with disabilities, except where a particular category of personnel, such as related services personnel, is identified.”

Special Education—Grants to States (Department of Education). “To provide grants to States to assist them in providing special education and related services to all children with disabilities.”

Special Education—Technology and Media Services for Individuals with Disabilities (Department of Education). “The purposes of the Educational Technology, Media and Materials for Individuals with Disabilities program are to: (1) improve results for children with disabilities by promoting the development, demonstration, and use of technology; (2) support educational media services activities designed to be of educational value in the classroom setting to children with disabilities; and (3) provide support for captioning and video description that are appropriate for use in the classroom setting; and (4) provide accessible educational materials to children with disabilities in a timely manner.”

State Fiscal Stabilization Fund—Education State Grants, Recovery Act (Department of Education). “These funds will help stabilize state and local government budgets in order to minimize and avoid reductions in education and other essential public services. The program will help ensure that local educational agencies (LEAs) and public institutions of higher education (IHEs) have the resources to avert cuts and retain teachers and professors. The program may also help support the modernization, renovation, and repair of school and college facilities. In addition, the law provides governors with significant resources to support education (including school modernization renovation, and repair), public safety, and other government services.”

Full-Service Community Schools (Department of Education). The Fund for the Improvement of Education (FIE), which is authorized by section 5411 of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, as amended (ESEA), supports nationally significant programs to improve the quality of elementary and secondary education at the State and local levels and help all children meet challenging academic content and academic achievement standards. The Full-Service Community Schools (FSCS) program, which is funded under FIE, encourages coordination of academic, social, and health services through partnerships among (1) public elementary and secondary schools; (2) the schools’ local educational agencies (LEAs); and (3) community-based organizations, nonprofit organizations, and other public or private entities.

Promise Neighborhoods (Department of Education). “Promise Neighborhoods, established under the legislative authority of the Fund for the Improvement of Education Program (FIE), provides funding to support eligible entities, including (1) nonprofit organizations, which may include faith-based nonprofit organizations, (2) institutions of higher education, and (3) Indian tribes… The purpose of Promise Neighborhoods is to significantly improve the educational and developmental outcomes of children and youth in our most distressed communities, and to transform those communities….”

Indian Education—Special Programs for Indian Children (Department of Education). “To support projects (1) to develop, test, and demonstrate the effectiveness of services and programs to improve educational opportunities and achievement of Indian children; and (2) to increase the number of qualified Indian individuals in teaching or other education professions that serve Indian people, to provide training to qualified Indian individuals to enable such individuals to become teachers, administrators, teacher aides, social workers, and ancillary educational personnel, and to improve the skills of qualified Indian individuals who serve in education professions.”

Migrant Education—State Grant Program (Department of Education). “To assist States in ensuring that migratory children have the opportunity to meet the same challenging State content and performance standards that all children are expected to meet.”

Native Hawaiian Education (Department of Education). “To develop innovative educational programs to assist Native Hawaiians and to supplement and expand programs and authorities in the area of education.”

Title I Grants to Local Educational Agencies (Department of Education). “To help local educational agencies (LEAs) improve teaching and learning in high-poverty schools in particular for children failing, or most at-risk of failing, to meet challenging State academic achievement standards.”

Child Care and Development Block Grant (Department of Health and Human Services). “The Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG or Discretionary Funds) is a part of the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) program, along with the Child Care Mandatory and Matching Funds (see CFDA 93.596). The CCDBG provides grants to States, Territories, Tribes, and tribal organizations serving federally-recognized tribes (public institutions of higher education and hospitals are not eligible applicants) for child care assistance for low-income families…. Current priorities include: making systemic investments in quality child care to promote child development and health and safety; and creating a system that is child focused, family friendly, and fair to providers.”

Child Care Mandatory and Matching Funds of the Child Care and Development Fund (Department of Health and Human Services). “The Child Care Mandatory and Matching Funds are a part of the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF) program, along with the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG) or Discretionary Funds (see CFDA 93.575). The Child Care Mandatory and Matching Funds provide grants to States, Tribes, and tribal organizations for child care assistance for low-income families. The goals are to: (1) allow each State maximum flexibility in developing child care programs and policies that best suit the needs of children and parents within such State; (2) promote parental choice to empower working parents to make their own decisions on the child care that best suits their family’s needs; (3) encourage States to provide consumer education information to help parents make informed choices about child care; (4) assist States to provide child care to parents trying to achieve independence from public assistance; and (5) assist States in implementing the health, safety, licensing, and registration standards established in State regulations. Current priorities include: making systemic investments in quality child care to promote child development and health and safety; and creating a system that is child focused, family friendly, and fair to providers.”

Head Start (Department of Health and Human Services). “To promote school readiness by enhancing the social and cognitive development of low-income children, including children on federally recognized reservations and children of migratory farm workers, through the provision of comprehensive health, educational, nutritional, social and other services; and to involve parents in their children’s learning and to help parents make progress toward their educational, literacy and employment goals. Head Start also emphasizes the significant involvement of parents in the administration of their local Head Start programs.”

Community Services Block Grant (Department of Health and Human Services). “To provide assistance to States and local communities, working through a network of community action agencies and other neighborhood-based organizations, for the reduction of poverty, the revitalization of low-income communities, and the empowerment of low-income families and individuals in rural and urban areas to become fully self-sufficient (particularly families who are attempting to transition off a State program carried out under part A of title IV of the Social Security Act).”

Social Services Block Grant (Department of Health and Human Services). “To enable each State to furnish social services best suited to the needs of the individuals residing in the State. Federal block grant funds may be used to provide services directed toward one of the following five goals specified in the law: (1) To prevent, reduce, or eliminate dependency; (2) to achieve or maintain self-sufficiency; (3) to prevent neglect, abuse, or exploitation of children and adults; (4) to prevent or reduce inappropriate institutional care; and (5) to secure admission or referral for institutional care when other forms of care are not appropriate.”

Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (Department of Health and Human Services). “To provide grants to States, Territories, the District of Columbia, and Federally-recognized Indian Tribes operating their own Tribal TANF programs to assist needy families with children so that children can be cared for in their own homes; to reduce dependency by promoting job preparation, work, and marriage; to reduce and prevent out-of-wedlock pregnancies; and to encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families.”

Indian Child and Family Education (Department of the Interior). “The Family And Child Education (FACE) program is designed to serve families with children from prenatal to age 5 in home and center-based settings. Families may receive services in one or both settings. FACE provides early childhood for all children from birth—to age five and adult education for their parents through family literacy, parental involvement, increasing school readiness, high school graduation rates among Indian parents, and encouraging life-long learning.”

Indian Child Welfare Act—Title II Grants (Department of the Interior). “To promote the stability and security of American Indian tribes and families by protecting American Indian children and preventing the separation of American Indian families and providing assistance to Indian tribes in the operation of child and family service programs designed to prevent the break up families.”

General Services Administration’s Child Care Program (General Services Administration). “For more than 25 years GSA has helped federal workers gain access to work place child care facilities. Today, more than 100 independently operated, child care centers are located in GSA-managed spaces across the country. These centers offer safe, high quality care to federal workers and citizens. GSA also provides guidance, assistance, and oversight to federal agencies for the development of child care centers.”

Donation of Federal Surplus Personal Property (General Services Administration). “To donate Federal personal property no longer required for Federal use to public agencies and qualifying nonprofit entities in order to maximize the use of Federal property and reduce the cost of State and local government.”

Child and Adult Care Food Program (Department of Agriculture). “To assist States, through grants-in-aid and other means, to initiate and maintain nonprofit food service programs for children and elderly or impaired adults enrolled in nonresidential day care facilities, children attending afterschool care programs in low-income areas, and children residing in emergency shelters. This program provides aid to child and adult care institutions and day care homes for the provision of nutritious foods that contribute to the wellness, healthy growth, and development of young children, and the health and wellness of older adults and chronically impaired disabled persons.”

National School Lunch Program (Department of Agriculture). “To assist States, through cash grants and food donations, in providing a nutritious nonprofit lunch service for school children and to encourage the domestic consumption of nutritious agricultural commodities.”

School Breakfast Program (Department of Agriculture). “To assist States in providing a nutritious nonprofit breakfast service for school children, through cash grants and food donations.”

Special Milk Program for Children (Department of Agriculture). “To provide subsidies to schools and institutions to encourage the consumption of fluid milk by children.”

Community Development Block Grants/Entitlement Grants (Department of Housing and Urban Development). “To develop viable urban communities by providing decent housing, a suitable living environment, and expanding economic opportunities, principally for persons of low and moderate income.”

Community Development Block Grants/Special Purpose Grants/Insular Areas (Department of Housing and Urban Development). “To provide community development assistance to the Pacific Islands of American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean, by providing decent housing, a suitable living environment, and expanding economic opportunities, principally for persons of low- and moderate-income. Each activity funded must meet one of the program’s National Objectives by: Benefiting low- and moderate-income families; aiding in the prevention or elimination of slums or blight; or meeting other community development needs having a particular urgency because existing conditions pose a serious and immediate threat to the health or welfare of the community where other financial resources are not available.”

Community Development Block Grants/State’s Program and Non-Entitlement Grants in Hawaii (Department of Housing and Urban Development). “The primary objective of this program is the development of viable urban communities by providing decent housing, a suitable living environment, and expanding economic opportunities, principally for persons of low- and moderate-income. Each activity funded must meet one of the program’s National Objectives by: Benefiting low- and moderate-income families; aiding in the prevention or elimination of slums or blight; or meeting other community development needs having a particular urgency because existing conditions pose a serious and immediate threat to the health or welfare of the community where other financial resources are not available.”

Reduction and Prevention of Children’s Exposure to Violence (Safe Start) (Department of Justice). “To develop an initiative for the purpose of understanding, preventing, and reducing the impact of family and community violence on young children. The initiative will help communities expand existing partnerships between service providers (such as law enforcement, mental health, health, early childhood education and others) to create a comprehensive service delivery system.”

Children and Youth Exposed to Violence (Department of Justice). “The Children Exposed to Violence program builds on and incorporates the knowledge gained through research, programs, and demonstration initiatives that have addressed the problem of children exposed to violence over the past decade. The Program features a comprehensive effort to identify successful policies and practices that address the trauma and harm that children exposed to violence experience in their homes, communities, and schools. The Program supports prevention, intervention, treatment, and community organizing strategies to implement a comprehensive continuum of care for children and teens, from birth through age 17, which have been exposed to violence. The ultimate goals of the Children Exposed to Violence Program is to reduce the severity of violence, reduce the frequency of violence, reduce the short- and long-term traumatic impact of violence, increase community safety and accountability, improve the response to children exposed to violence, improve the safety and well-being of children, and create a national dialogue on the issue of children exposed to violence.”

Transitional Housing Assistance for Victims of Domestic Violence, Dating Violence, Stalking, or Sexual Assault (Department of Justice). “To provide transitional housing assistance and related support services to minors, adults, and their dependents who are homeless, or in need of transitional housing or other housing assistance, as a result of fleeing a situation of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, or stalking; and for whom emergency shelter services or other crisis intervention services are unavailable or insufficient.”

National Farmworker Jobs Program (Department of Labor). “To help individuals (and their dependents) who are primarily employed in agricultural labor that is characterized by chronic unemployment and underemployment to find and retain stable employment. Grantees provide job training and other employment services and related assistance.”

Native American Employment and Training (Department of Labor). “To support employment and training activities for Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian individuals in order to develop more fully the academic, occupational, and literacy skills of such individuals; to make such individuals more competitive in the workforce; and to promote the economic and social development of Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian communities in accordance with the goals and values of such communities…. Supplemental youth funding is also awarded to help low-income Native American youth and Native Hawaiian youth, between the ages of 14 and 21, acquire the educational and occupational skills needed to achieve academic and employment success and transition to careers and productive adulthood.”

Workforce Investment Act Adult Program (Department of Labor). “To prepare workers—particularly disadvantaged, low-skilled, and underemployed adults—for good jobs by providing job search assistance and training. Program performance is measured by entry into unsubsidized employment, retention in unsubsidized employment, and earnings. The program serves individuals and helps employers meet their workforce needs. The employment goals will be measured using the Unemployment Insurance Wage Records Information System and customer satisfaction goals will be measured by sampling.”

Workforce Investment Act Dislocated Worker Formula Grants (Department of Labor). “The purpose of the WIA Dislocated Worker program is to help dislocated workers become reemployed through job search assistance and/or training that builds their occupational skills to meet labor market needs. This program’s success is measured by participants’ entry into unsubsidized employment, retention in unsubsidized employment, and average earnings.”

Appalachian Area Development (Appalachian Regional Commission). “To help the regional economy become more competitive by putting in place the building blocks for self-sustaining economic development, while continuing to provide special assistance to the Region’s most distressed counties and areas. Specific program goals are: (1) Increase job opportunities and per capita income in Appalachia to reach parity with the nation; (2) Strengthen the capacity of the people of Appalachia to compete in the global economy; (3) Develop and improve Appalachia’s infrastructure to make the Region economically competitive; and (4) Build the Appalachian Development Highway System to reduce Appalachia’s isolation.”

Indian Education—Assistance to Schools (Department of the Interior). “To fund programs that meet the unique and specialized needs of eligible Indian students.”

Sources: Karen E. Lynch, “Social Services Block Grant: Background and Funding,” Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, August 28, 2012, (accessed March 4, 2014), and the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance for program descriptions.

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