Spotlight on early childhood: Pre-K initiatives need to include farmworker children

Farmworker pre-K(This post is part of a blog series on the crucial role of quality early childhood education and child care in caring for our youngest residents, creating thriving communities, and promoting a healthy economy. Read the introduction to this blog series and learn more about the programs we?ll be discussing here.)

By John Menditto

In this year’s State of the Union address, President Obama announced a bold and ambitious plan to expand preschool services. The “Preschool for All” Initiative calls for $75 billion in new funding during the next decade to partner with states and help expand access to low- and middle-income children who are not currently enrolled in preschool programs.

Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has been tireless in his advocacy for this new, national initiative. Recently, I had the opportunity to meet with Secretary Duncan as part of a small coalition of community-based groups who serve the Latino community and ask him how the Administration would make sure that the Preschool for All Initiative did not exclude by its design the preschool-aged children of migrant farm workers. Secretary Duncan assured the group that “Preschool for All” meant exactly that: there would be no asterisk excepting out farmworker families. He invited those in attendance to provide the Administration with information on how to design preschool services to ensure the children of farmworker families did not lose out on the benefits of a preschool education. 

For more than forty years, community-based organizations like East Coast Migrant Head Start Project have been serving the young children of migrant and seasonal farmworker families in high-quality and comprehensive Head Start programs. Our history of service to this community provides us with a unique and clear perspective on how the Preschool for All Initiative should be designed to avert the unintended consequence of excluding preschool-aged farmworker children from receiving services based on a designed-flawed model. The Migrant Head Start program was created in 1969 – four years after the creation of the Head Start program in 1965 –because the original design of the Head Start program (with no separate funding for farmworker families) had the unintended consequence of excluding children of migrant farmworker families from the benefits of the Head Start experience. It is imperative that the Preschool for All Initiative does not suffer from similar effects.

As a result, the one issue that stands above all others in the design of the Preschool for All Initiative is the need to have separate set-aside funding for migrant farmworker families. The current Preschool for All Initiative would have preschool funding flow from the federal government to the states, which, in turn, would fund local school districts to provide preschool programs in accordance with the current academic school term that runs from August through early June.

But what then would happen to services for migrant farmworker four-year olds who arrive in North Carolina in June when their parents come to harvest summer crops and stay through October for the sweet potato harvest?   How will the local school districts ensure that these most at-risk children receive the benefit of a quality pre-school education?

And where will the funding come for the new initiative? The Obama Administration calls for an increase of the tobacco tax, but it’s hard to see much traction for such a proposal in the Republican-controlled House. Within the Head Start community there is great concern that Congress’s unwillingness to find new funding for the Preschool for All Initiative will result in the diversion of funding from the Head Start program to the new universal preschool for all initiative.  If this were to happen, it’s hard to see the benefit of the new initiative to migrant farmworker children.

At East Coast Migrant Head Start Project we know very well the tremendous benefits of a high-quality early education program that involves the parents as the first and best educators of their young children. President Obama’s Preschool for All Initiative has the potential, over time, to advance the opportunities of millions of young children. So we support the goal of the President and Secretary Duncan to expand preschool opportunities for all, while we work to ensure farmworker children continue to benefit from programs currently serving their needs.

John E. Menditto currently serves as the General Counsel and Director of Risk Management of East Coast Migrant Head Start Project, a private, non-profit corporation funded by the United States Department of Health and Human Services to provide Head Start services to migrant and seasonal farm workers from Lake Okeechobee, Florida to Lake Erie, Pennsylvania.

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