Winning the Future: Early Learning, Race to the Top, and Federal Funding

May 25, 2011

After more than a month of tweaking and planning, today Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius announced the details of the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge (RttT-ELC). Both departments will co-administer the $500 million state-level grant competition, which has the goal of rewarding states that develop comprehensive plans for early learning system with coordination, clear learning standards, and “meaningful workforce development.” The most exciting aspect of this new initiative is that it puts quality front and center, incentivizing states to improve the educational effectiveness of all programs from birth to five, including state and local pre-K, Head Start, and subsidized child care. Specifically, states applying for grants will be encouraged to:

• Increase access to high-quality learning programs for low-income and at-risk infants, toddlers, and preschoolers
• Create transparent systems that align early care and education programs
• Improve training and support for the early learning workforce
• Implement robust evaluation systems to share best practices
• Help parents make knowledgeable decisions about their children’s care and education.

States must also ensure that any assessments used conform with the recommendations of the National Research Council on early childhood. The grants will also encourage states to continue making effective use of current state and federal investments in child care and early education.  Additional details of the grants will be available later this summer; grants will be awarded to state no later than the last day of 2011. Opportunities to comment are provided at This is your opportunity to push for higher quality.

Race to the Top, which has been a hallmark of the Obama administration’s education policy, originated in the stimulus bill (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, or ARRA) as competition among states for education funding. The Department of Education has lobbied for an Early Learning Challenge Fund for two years, and the Obama administration requested it in their FY 2010 budget proposal, but many were surprised that the ELC Grants emerged from the sometimes acerbic battle of the budget for the end of FY11. Secretary Duncan noted at the press conference that “We are deeply grateful to Congress for supporting these programs. Congress understands the value of investing in education reform, particularly early learning, even in these economic times.”

Up until this point, the U.S. Department of Education has had little involvement in the funding or regulation of early childhood education. Yet, state-funded preschool has seen a remarkable rise in the last decade through a number of innovative program and funding structures. In the 2009-2010 school year, state-funded pre-K enrolled 1.3 million students, largely at ages 3 and 4. Adding special education brings the total to about 1.6 million. These programs are largely funded out of state dollars. The $5.4 billion spent last school year represents a decrease from the previous year, reflecting the impact of the recession.. States have increasingly turned to innovative applications of available federal funds; states utilized at least $283 million in federal funds, as well as another $154 million in TANF monies, to supplement their programs. In order to win grants in the Early Learning Challenge, states will need to work toward better integration and quality with a variety of programs, including the following:

Head Start
The largest federal foray in to early childhood education comes in the form of the Head Start program. In the 2009-2010 school year, Head Start served 755,078 3- and 4-year-olds nationwide (though the program is available to children at other ages as well) at the cost of about $7.4 billion. In the last few years, Early Head Start to serve children under age 3 has been greatly expanded to serve nearly 115,000 infants and toddlers.

Five states – Delaware, Minnesota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin – use the existing structure of Head Start to implement state-funded pre-K programs that expand access to more low-income children. Twelve other states (including two without pre-K programs) provide supplemental Head Start funds as well, though this money is often used to increase staff salaries, provide extended-day or year services, or otherwise fund quality improvements rather than expanding access. At the local level, Head Start partners with school districts as well.

Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF)
The federal government also provides funding for child care programs through the Child Care and Development Fund, also administered through HHS. At least five states parlay CCDF into funding for pre-K programs. In the 2009-2010 year, California merged five of its early care and education programs into the State Preschool Program. While this change largely just redistributed resources rather than adding any new funding, this provides a better educational opportunity than most usually receive through CCDF funds. States that fund pre-K programs with these funds go above and beyond learning experiences in most child care facilities while using resources already at their disposal.

Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF)
States have wide latitude over how they use the Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) funds from the federal government. While the majority of this funding goes to provide public assistance subsidies, a substantial amount is used for child care subsidies and six states report using at least $81.7 million in TANF contributions for their pre-K programs targeting at-risk preschoolers.

Other Federal Programs
In a testament to state ingenuity, state pre-K administrators reported utilizing federal funds from a number of other programs, though states were often unable to specify the dollar amounts. Additional programs include:

• IDEA funds
• USDA Child and Adult Care Food Program
• NCLB Title programs
• Early Reading First
• Even Start
• 21st Century

While most programs consistently fund the majority of pre-K program operation using state dollars, for some federal funding has been a relatively stable source of supplementary funding, which can expand enrollment as well as improve quality. However, the 2011 federal budget requires 0.2 percent cuts across all non-defense discretionary spending, and eliminated a number of programs in the Department of Education, including Striving Readers, Even Start, and Educational Technology State Grants. States will have to put on their thinking caps in order to make up for lost funding from these sources or else face harrowing choices about cutting slots or compromising program quality.

All this talk of program consolidation and budget cuts is enough to make one weary of the appropriations process, but don’t be fooled by the late passing of the FY 2011 budget—budget season for FY 2012 is in full swing! Federal programs are funded through September 30, 2011, but be sure to take a look at the budget proposals for the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services put forth by the Obama administration as well as information on the pending reauthorization of ESEA to ensure America’s youngest learners have the resources they need to succeed.

The Early Learning Challenge grants are one of the most exciting developments in federal early learning policy to date. As the early learning community awaits the innovation and creativity states will demonstrate in their grant applications, let us also maintain our focus on utilizing all available federal resources to ensure all young learners enter school ready to learn, succeed, and “win the future.”

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER

This Memorial Day: A Time to Reflect on the Past … and the Future of Armed Forces

May 20, 2011

How Early Education Can Support Our Military

Source: 2nd Infantry Division US Army

As Memorial Day approaches and Americans collectively prepare for the start of summer it is easy to lose track of the purpose of this day — to honor and remember those Americans in uniform who have died in the service of their country. Unfortunately, recent reports indicate that the American education system may be doing too little to honor their sacrifice by failing to adequately prepare the next generation of men and women in the U.S. Armed Forces. The military relies on a well-trained force of capable individuals who must meet certain requirements to enter the service. However, a combination of low educational attainment, health concerns, and criminal convictions disqualifies a large number of young adults who wish to enter the service.

A recent study pegs the percentage of men and women between the ages of 18 and 24 who are unqualified for military service at 90 percent in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Statistics released by the Pentagon indicate this figure is 75 percent nationwide. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has responded to these startling figures by calling for changes in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) that allow for increased local flexibility and federal incentives to invest in early childhood education. While early education is not the expected response to an armed forces problem, Secretary Duncan is not alone in making the connection between kindergarten preparedness and military preparedness.

The organization Mission: Readiness, working with a coalition of 200 retired military officers, has issued research on the military preparedness (or lack thereof) in each state and concluded that the best intervention is an early one — early childhood education programs that help prepare at-risk students for school so as to help avoid a number of disqualifying problems by the time children are 18. While military brass and preschool students may seem an unlikely partnership to some, it is one that is gaining steam as pre-K programs prove their worth during tough budget times. To find out more about Mission: Readiness, read the Preschool Matters interview with Lieutenant General Norman Seip of this organization.

Meanwhile, a report from the Pew Center on the States also shows that child care and pre-K programs are an important issue for current active duty and reserve military personnel and their families. While the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) allotted $240 million for additional child development centers on military bases, families often lack access to quality child care and preschool programs on bases or in their areas. As indicated in Figure 1 below, Pew found that child care was a critical daily need for military families, more pressing even than health care services. That need only increased further when a service member deployed.

Figure 1: Day-to-day needs of military families

Source: The Pew Center on the States. (2011). On the home front: Early care and education a top priority for military families.

States could do more to help. The State of Preschool 2010 found that only 12 state-funded programs out of the 54 included in the study require or allow program administrators to make eligibility decisions based on a child’s parent being on active military duty. Young children’s development may particularly be affected by the frequent moves common to military families. Yet the combined resources of military child care and state-funded pre-K fail to adequately provide early education services for these children to aid in their healthy development.

Increased funding for state-funded preschool education programs can expand access and improve quality for those children whose parents currently serve in the military while also improving life outcomes for those who may enlist in the future. In the 2009-2010 school year, both total state funding and per-child spending nationwide fell for these programs, representing a step back for young learners. Combining state, federal, and local sources, $6.2 billion was spent on pre-K programs for the 1,283,890 3- and 4-year-olds enrolled. NIEER estimates that an additional $7.5 billion could expand access to quality pre-K to fully cover the 40 percent of children estimated to start school unready to succeed. Representing only slightly more than 1 percent of the $670.9 billion budget requested by the Department of Defense for fiscal year 2012, this is a small price to pay for improving military readiness in years to come while supporting families of our active duty service members.

Indeed, an April report released by two senior members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff argue that America is currently channeling too much funding to military operations at the expense of human capital investments that make for a strong military and civil workforce in the future. Investing in pre-K could help strike a balance. As General Seip told NIEER, “It just pains me to think that there are so many young people out there, for whom the job and the service would mean so much — for whom it’s a ticket to the middle class and the American dream — who do not have the skills or the training to qualify.”

So this Memorial Day when you honor the heroic deeds of service members past and present, also take a moment to consider the armed forces in years to come. Are our future heroes getting the education they deserve?

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER
– Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER

Are Hispanic Children Losing Out in Preschool?

May 16, 2011

As revealed in The State of Preschool 2010, enrollment in state-funded pre-K programs nationwide has been negatively impacted by these bad budget years. Enrollment of 4-year-olds nationwide grew by only 3.9 percent, and 3-year-old enrolled actually declined by about 4 percent from 2008-2009 to 2009-2010. Both per-child and overall funding were down as well. These changes appear to be affecting young Hispanic learners worse than other groups.

The 2010 Census may show dramatic growth among the Hispanic population of children nationwide, but state-funded pre-K programs are not showing the same growth. The Yearbook does not collect information on enrollment by ethnicity or race, but data on programs in major Hispanic states is not encouraging. Arizona, which has one of the largest Hispanic populations in the nation, has cut its pre-K program entirely for the 2010-2011 school year, and shows no signs of reviving it. Cuts to early education have been proposed in at least seven states with among the largest Hispanic populations: California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Texas.

As it is, Hispanic students who are able to access state-funded preschools may not be fully benefiting in some of these states. For instance:
• Texas enrolls more than 200,000 children, including 87,863 English Language Learners, in its preschool program, but it ranks poorly in its program quality. It is the only state program with no limits on class size or number of children per teacher. Proposed budget cuts could mean lower quality for many students, and decreases in the number of children being served.
• Florida ranks second in the nation in the percentage of children served, but received low marks when it comes to spending per child and program quality standards. Florida used $38 million in federal stimulus funds in the 2009-2010 school year to help support its preschool program, but these funds will not be available in the future.

There has been at least some good news for Hispanic preschoolers. In the 2009-2010 school year, California consolidated several child care and preschool programs into a single large preschool education program. While this policy change only consolidated enrollment and spending rather than increasing either, it will enable children to be in more education-focused programs. Among states with large Hispanic populations, the preschool programs in Georgia, Illinois, New Jersey, North Carolina, and Washington receive high marks for program quality standards.

The Yearbook contains other indicators, including eligibility policies, support services and ELL enrollment, of how well Hispanic children are being served in public pre-K programs. Of the 54 programs profiled in the Yearbook, only 17 identify having non-English-speaking family members as a factor that may make students eligible for pre-K. The Kansas At-Risk Program may also determine eligibility based on a family’s migrant status. Thirty-six pre-K initiatives require at least one support service for ELLs and their families, while 15 programs do not require these services. Support services range from administering a home language survey to providing translators to offering monolingual non-English classes in pre-K.

It is difficult to estimate the number of English Language Learners (ELLs) served in state-funded pre-K programs as many states do not track the specific enrollment of these students. Only half of programs profiled in the Yearbook could report the number of ELLs in their program for a total nationwide of 128,312 ELLs. This number severely underreports ELL enrollment, as a number of states with large Hispanic populations — including Arizona, California, Illinois, and New Jersey — were unable to report their ELL enrollment. There are large variations in the reported enrollment of ELLs from 87,863 in Texas (41 percent of the total pre-K enrollment) to only 35 in West Virginia (0.25 percent of the total pre-K enrollment).

While ELLs can come from any linguistic background and therefore include children of any race and ethnicity, Hispanic children merit particular attention as their population grows, but many continue to suffer from an achievement gap. Evidence from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that Hispanic students lag behind white students in both fourth and eighth-grade math and reading proficiency, in high school graduation rates, and in college enrollment.

Achievement and Attainment by Race Whites Hispanic
4th grade % proficient math 50% 21%
4th grade % proficient reading 41% 16%
8th grade % proficient math 43% 17%
8th grade % proficient reading 39% 16%
High School Graduation 81% 64%
College Enrollment 63% 12%

Source: Milagros Nores and Niufeng Zhu, NIEER

Children from minority and immigrant backgrounds can benefit significantly from high-quality early learning programs. Positive outcomes include being less likely to be held back in school, and more likely to graduate from high school. As adults, they are more likely to be employed and less likely to commit crimes. Nationally, the Obama administration has recently increased its emphasis on improving educational outcomes for Hispanic children, as well as promoting high-quality early childhood education — two strategies that go hand-in-hand. Advocates must work to keep these issues in the spotlight, not only at the national level, but also as states continue to face harrowing budget decisions.

— Celia C. Ayala, Ph.D.,
Chief Executive Officer, Los Angeles Universal Preschool

Signs of Decline: Pre-K Trends During the “Great Recession”

May 9, 2011

Since releasing The State of Preschool 2010: State Preschool Yearbook in April, we’ve been thinking a lot about the impact of the recession on our youngest learners. The 2009-2010 school year was the second year in a row that we saw the negative impacts of the recession, which became more severe and widespread. Total state funding for pre-K fell for the first time since NIEER has collected data, and state per-child spending was about $700 below its 2001-2002 level.

How badly has pre-K been impacted by this recession? According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, this recession started in December 2007, so we compared data from this most recent Yearbook against the 2006-2007 year, the last year before the recession impacted state revenue.

Per-Child Spending
From 2006-2007 to 2009-2010, real per-child spending is up 1.1 percent, which means an increase of only $44. Per-child spending was cut in 21 states, ranging from a cut of 2 percent in Florida to a whopping 95.6 percent reduction in Arizona. Ten states continue to spend no money on state-funded programs: Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming.

Enrollment has grown by 21 percent since 2006-2007. However, the recession has undoubtedly slowed enrollment growth. In 2006-2007, 4-year-old enrollment grew by 9 percent over the previous year, and in 2007-2008 by an even higher 10.9 percent. The growth rate declined to 7.5 percent in 2008-2009 and an anemic 3.8 percent in 2009-2010 school year. Three-year-olds fared even worse, with enrollment increasing only 12 percent between 2006-2007 and 2009-2010.

Since 2006-2007, 28 states have increased enrollment as a percentage of their 3- and 4-year-old population. Nationwide, there was a 2.6 percentage point increase in children enrolled. As shown by Table 1, there was great variation among the states. While most increases and decreases were mild, some states increased enrollment sharply. However, many of the states that increased enrollment did not increase total funding proportionately resulting in declining spending per child, creating concern for quality. Seven states reduced both total spending and the proportion of their population enrolled.

Table 1.

State Change in Percent of 3- and 4-year-olds Served (percentage point) Percent Change in Total State + TANF Spending (adjusted for inflation)
Massachusetts -1.0 198%
Arizona -0.6 -96%
Ohio -0.6 72%
Missouri -0.5 11%
Michigan -0.4 42%
Kentucky -0.4 15%
Minnesota -0.4 -8%
Delaware -0.2 23%
Maryland -0.1 0%
Connecticut 0.0 -5%
Nevada 0.2 551%
Georgia 0.5 38%
South Carolina 0.7 -16%
Virginia 0.8 17%
California 0.9 38%
Oklahoma 0.9 31%
Washington 0.9 -27%
Texas 1.2 -13%
Illinois 2.2 -14%
Alabama 2.2 -5%
New Jersey 2.5 195%
Tennessee 2.6 -4%
Oregon 2.9 10%
New Mexico 3.2 85%
Kansas 4.1 18%
North Carolina 4.4 76%
Colorado 4.5 7%
Maine 4.5 29%
Louisiana 4.8 85%
Vermont 5.0 210%
New York 5.1 -7%
Florida 5.4 35%
Pennsylvania 6.0 35%
West Virginia 6.2 59%
Wisconsin 7.7 28%
Arkansas 8.7 42%
Nebraska 16.0 47%
Iowa 16.7 45%

Unemployment and Income Changes
The recession’s impact can be traced fairly directly. States that experienced larger increases in unemployment rates tended to cut per-child spending. Nationally, the unemployment rate increased by 4.7 points from 2006 to 2009. Of 15 states with the largest increases in unemployment, 12 decreased their per-child spending on pre-K, while one state – Indiana – continued to provide no state funds for pre-K. The other two of these 15 states were North Carolina, which increased per-child spending by just 1.2 percent, and Rhode Island, which introduced a pilot pre-K program in 2009. At the other end of the spectrum, nine states increased per-child spending by at least 10 percent during the recession; none of these had increases in unemployment rates above the national average.

As we have shown above, the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression has negatively affected pre-K across the country and the impacts have tended to be greater where the recession hit hardest. Nevertheless, states have made remarkably different choices when faced with difficult decisions. West Virginia continued to steam ahead toward universal pre-K access while Arizona defunded its pre-K program entirely. This year continues to present governors and legislators with difficult choices in most states. We encourage all of them to carefully consider the impacts of decisions about pre-K on the lives of their youngest citizens, and to recognize that cutting quality may be worse than cutting enrollment as an educationally ineffective program offers little benefit to children or the taxpayers.

We have grave concerns that with less federal aid to weather the effects of the recession, state funding and thus growth in pre-K programs may continue to decline in the next few years even as parents return to work and seek preschool services for their children. Speaking to The Columbus Dispatch in Ohio, NIEER co-director Steve Barnett characterized cutting pre-K during the recession as a “double-whammy for the children,” further noting that, “We know that when a recession hits, when parents lose their jobs, when family income declines, that has a permanent negative impact on child development.” So children already hurting from the recession’s impacts on their families are doubly hurt when state-funded early learning programs are cut.

Finally, it does not seem to be widely recognized that the recession has increased the number of children eligible for most pre-K and other early learning programs. Most programs determine eligibility based on family income. As families have experienced salary cuts and layoffs, more children have qualified for programs. The optimal response is to increase funding for these programs, not to cut. Advocates and program administrators alike must be forceful in upcoming budget debates and as the economy slowly recovers to ensure programs are adequately funded to reach all children who need pre-K services. As Steve Barnett said upon the report’s release, “Overall, state cuts to preschool funding transformed the recession into a depression for many young children.” We must all do our part to remedy that situation.

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER
– Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER

This Week: Thank a Teacher

May 4, 2011

From elementary school students to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, people across the nation are taking time to thank a teacher throughout the week. That’s because this week is Teacher Appreciation Week, a time to not only celebrate our educators but also to learn more about teaching as a profession.

Years of research have found that teachers play an extremely important role in the preschool classroom. Teacher qualifications are often an indicator of a pre-K program’s quality. Better education and training for teachers can improve the interaction between children and teachers, which in turn benefits children’s learning. The most effective preschool educators have at least a bachelor’s degree and specialized training in early childhood. But while this is the norm in kindergarten classrooms, this is not always the case in preschool classrooms.

When we analyzed data from the latest State Preschool Yearbook, we found that 27 of 52 state-funded pre-K initiatives require that pre-K classroom teachers have a bachelor’s degree and 45 require lead teachers to have specialized training in early childhood. Only 16 state-funded programs require assistant teachers to have at least a child development credential or equivalent. While progress has been made in state policies regarding teacher qualifications since we first started analyzing data in 2002, still more can be done. The figure below provides a visual representation of the number of state programs meeting our benchmarks regarding teacher policies over the past eight years.

Since NIEER began tracking teacher qualification requirements, we’ve seen the most improvement in requiring 15 hours of professional development each year for lead teachers as well as more states requiring specialized early childhood training for lead teachers. Progress has been slower in requiring BAs for lead teachers, and fewer than half of all state-funded programs require a CDA for assistant teachers. And, when we moved away from state-funded preschool initiatives and looked at child care, the picture was bleaker. Only 16 of 50 states have any teacher education requirements, and none of those states require a bachelor’s degree.

A newly released policy brief from NIEER and the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment, written by Marcy Whitebook and Sharon Ryan, says it’s not just the quantity of teachers’ formal education but also the quality and content of that education. Whitebook and Ryan find a mismatch between the qualifications for the most effective teachers and the supports that these teachers receive to improve upon their work. Indeed, the latest Yearbook shows that only 44 of 52 state-funded pre-K programs have a policy requiring teachers have at least 15 hours of professional development for lead teachers per year; only about half of programs require professional development for assistant teachers. States provide some supports for pre-K teachers to enhance their skills and credentials; notably, almost three quarters of programs provide some scholarships to teachers enrolling in training, though requirements and amounts vary considerably by state. Three programs provide no support to teachers, despite the benefit to students and teachers of keeping up with the latest in the early education field. See the figure below for percents of the 52 state-funded pre-K initiatives offering specific supports for their teachers.

Does the state provide any of the following types of supports to teachers to help them attain credentials or enhance their skills?
Scholarships 73%
Mentors 63%
Other 40%
Loan forgiveness 21%
None 6%

Whitebook and Ryan also note the disconnect between expectations for teachers and compensation policies. When asked if pre-K teachers are required to be paid on the same scale as public school teachers, only 17 of 52 state programs ensured this for all teachers; another 20 programs extended this guarantee only to teachers who classrooms were in public settings. And, the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that in 2009, child care workers nationwide had an average salary of $20,940, ranging from only $16,750 in Arkansas to $24,480 in Massachusetts. In a staggering 40 states, the average child care worker salary is below the federal poverty level set by the Department of Health and Human Services for a family of four in 2009.

Research tells us what credentials make for the highest quality early educators, but state policy has a way to go in fully supporting them. State budgets continue to be tight, but states must prioritize a well-educated, well-compensated early childhood workforce to receive all the benefits we know pre-K can yield. As a nation, when it comes to thanking pre-K teachers, we might consider more than a shiny red apple.

– Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER
– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER

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