The House is expected to vote today on the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act of 2009, which would end the Federal Family Education Loan (FFEL) program, transferring student lending exclusively to the federal Direct Loan and Perkins Loan programs – effectively ending federally subsidized private lending. While the proposed legislation will drastically change the dynamics of the student loan industry, it will also expand the federal government’s role in early childhood education – to the tune of $8 billion.

The SAFRA establishes an $8 billion Early Learning Challenge Fund to provide grants to states to improve the quality of their early childhood education programs for children ages 0 to 5 – a key mission of the Obama administration. According to Education Daily:

Duncan said including $8 billion for early education in legislation with a core focus on higher education supports the administration’s ‘cradle to career’ agenda to ensure young children succeed and high school seniors have opportunities to at­tend college.

The $8 billion infusion – which will allocate $1 billion annually beginning in 2010 and ending in 2019, comes on top of the $25 billion spent each year by the federal government on early education and child care programs.

The Early Learning Challenge Fund will provide money to states to develop common quality standards for their preschool programs, and according to Education Secretary Duncan, will be used to “increase access” to preschool. The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act will increase the number of disadvantaged children participating in preschool, and will require states to describe how they will encourage center-based child care programs when applying for funds. Priority will be given to states “that dedicate a significant increase, in comparison to recent fiscal years, in State expenditures on early learning programs and services”.

While it may seem curious to have preschool funding in a higher education bill, proponents claim that children must be prepared early on in order to be successful in later schooling, and that preschool is the key to this preparation. House Education and Labor Committee Chairman George Miller (D-CA) was quoted in the same Education Daily article attempting to justify including such a provision in a higher ed bill:

If you do it right in early education settings, the children are much more likely to succeed early, are more likely to make a decision not to drop out of high school, and to think about going to college. One thing that is excit­ing about this administration is they are seeking to do it right. We’ve had enough patchwork.

But the evidence suggests otherwise.

Taxpayers have spent more than $100 billion on the federal Head Start program since it began in 1965, with little to show for it. HHS, the department that administers Head Start, concluded that participants “still enter kindergarten lagging far behind the typical Amer­ican child in skills needed for school readiness.” And states have had little success with large taxpayer investments in government preschool programs. Oklahoma and Georgia, which have both had preschool for over a decade, have essentially seen zero benefit to their 3- and 4-year-old children. In Oklahoma, students have actually seen a decline in reading achievement since the introduction of universal preschool.

And while Miller claims that preschool will reduce dropout rates, graduation figures over the past four decades tell another story. After investing billions of dollars and drastically increasing preschool attendance, graduation rates are actually lower today than they were in the 1970s. From 1970 to 2007, enrollment of three- and four-year-old children increased more than 180 percent. But in that same time period, graduation rates have remained relatively flat, even decreasing slightly.

Yet, the Obama administration is intent on spending billions on its “zero-to-five” program, and Congress seems eager to make good on this intention, even if it means slipping a large new preschool initiative into a higher education bill.