For Early Childhood Funders and Advocates, a New Window Just Opened

The education world has been abuzz ever since the passage into law of the latest version of the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act. President Obama recently signed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), ending its predecessor, the No Child Left Behind Act. Educators, nonprofits, and funders alike are scouring the new law to see what it means for them. For early childhood education advocates and the funders who support such programs, ESSA may prove quite encouraging.

It's no secret that President Obama is an advocate of early learning, as past actions by his administration have shown. ESSA further reflects that interest in those crucial learning years. For example, the new law explicitly states that providing early education is a permissible use of Title I funds and encourages states to do more to help children transition from pre-kindergarten into elementary school. While this has always been allowed, only a tiny percentage of eligible children receive Title I support prior to kindergarten.

ESSA also states that Title II educator recruitment dollars can be used for early educators and the professional development of these teachers. This is an important development, as many teachers and school leaders lack training on how young children learn best.

While these are encouraging developments in federal education law, ESSA also contains language indicating that Congress still sees early childhood education as primarily a state, rather than a federal, responsibility. This will likely mean continued variation across states in the use of early learning dollars and differing ideas about what quality early education programs look like. This could create opportunity for funders to put greater emphasis on early childhood programs.

Billlionaire investor J.B. Pritzker is one funder who would like to see funders make early learning more of a priority. Many philanthropists have focused instead on elementary and secondary education goals such as grade-level reading and college readiness — all very noteworthy. However, the evidence indicates that quality early learning programs pay off as a kind of early investment that leads to later successes in these and other education outcomes.

Related: The Billionaire Urging Philanthropy to Make Early Education a (Much) Bigger Priority

That may explain why the Gates Foundation has turned its attention increasingly toward early childhood education. After years of pursuing a variety of K-12 programs with a mixed record of success, the funder is poised to make early learning more a part of its education funding strategy. Gates is a major supporter of the First Five Years Fund, a national advocacy effort aimed at expanding the availability of quality early childhood education nationwide.

Related: Where is the Gates Foundation Going With Funding For Early Childhood Education?

While the details of Gates' broader early learning funding strategy are still being worked out, previous reports we've covered indicate that the funding giant is clearly interested in working with local, state, and federal officials to identify and replicate successful early learning programs. ESSA may provide greater opportunities for such collaboration.

While many educators are saying "good riddance" to No Child Left Behind, early learning advocates may be giving a hearty "welcome!" to ESSA. While the new law may not be perfect (what legislation is?), it looks like a big step in the right direction.

Related: Funding Guide for Early Childhood Ed