Keeping early learning at arm’s length

October 29, 2014

We are a nation intrigued by lists, and I am no exception. I scour lists from top to bottom on any number of topics, from best companies to work for to international rankings for educational performance. I also look for any underlying trends that may tell the story behind the list.

It should come as no surprise that I eagerly reviewed the recently released list of states applying for $250 million in federal Preschool Development Grants. These grants–ranging in size from $5-20 million per state to develop a preschool program to $10–35 million annually for 4 years to expand existing preschool services for low- and moderate-income children–present an opportunity for states to reach children who have fallen between the cracks when it comes to participating voluntarily in a high-quality preschool, an opportunity the majority of Americans are clamoring for. Fifteen states and Puerto Rico were eligible to receive development funds with the remaining 35 states and District of Columbia eligible to expand existing programs.

As the list was released, 8 states and Puerto Rico submitted development applications and 27 states sought funding for program expansion. Eighteen states applying for expansion funds currently receive Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge (ELC) grants, with only ELC recipients Michigan and Wisconsin choosing not to apply.

States That Submitted Applications for the FY 2014 Preschool Development Grants

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 9.12.53 PM

Image from the US Department of Education Office of Early Learning

There are many lenses one can use to look for underlying story lines; geographic and political leadership being two common sets. Looking at a map of applicants, a swath across the Midwest extending from Canada to Mexico appears desolate if not for Texas’ application, and there must be something in the water leaving a bad taste for 3 of 4 states touching Lake Michigan–or all 3 states surrounding Yellowstone’s Old Faithful–causing them to keep this opportunity at arm’s length.

Governors were required to submit the application for these funds and, as such, wield a great deal of power and influence. And, if one were looking to pit Democrats against Republicans, she’d be disappointed, sort of. Half of the states seeking development grants, and 11 of 27 states going for the expansion gold, are red states, to demonstrate that early education is a bipartisan, perhaps nonpartisan issue for most states. Yet the glass looks half-empty as one considers the list of states not submitting applications. All 7 states eligible for development grants and 7 of 8 states eligible for expansion have Republican governors. Indiana was poised to submit an application, but Governor Pence’s decision to withhold his signature at the last moment, for reasons explained as the state initiates a pre-K pilot, moved it to the other side of the ledger. The hidden story behind decisions by Florida, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia may stem not from political disinterest, but from recognition that policies and resources have already resulted in achieving near-universal access for 4-year-olds.

Opportunities like this do not come along often. I’d be naïve to think that politics play an inconsequential role in this day and age. Based on the actions of states to pursue Preschool Development Grant funds, one can reasonably conclude that support for pre-K is bipartisan; however, the opposition to pre-K still remains partisan. As a result, the opportunity gap is alive and well, when it could be addressed with political will and leadership, and, I fear, we are destined to admire the problem of straight-arming children who continue to fall through the cracks.

–Jim Squires, NIEER Senior Research Fellow

Federal Proposal Would Build on State Efforts

February 26, 2013

Steve BarnettPresident Obama’s call to action on early education is a watershed moment that has the potential to improve education for millions of American students. Ensuring all students have the opportunity to attend high-quality preschool, regardless of income and geography, is a key component of an effective education system that prepares students for success in school and society.

State-funded pre-K has grown substantially over the last decade to serve 28 percent of 4-year-olds, up from 14 percent in 2001. Yet, this is only part of the picture. As many as 40 percent are served by public programs when Head Start and preschool special education are counted, though the latter may consist of only a few hours of therapy a week. Over 80 percent are in some type of out of home arrangement including private programs and family home child care. Unfortunately, research now makes it clear that the quality of many of these arrangements as assessed by direct observation is far too low to promote educational opportunity. Some are so poor they may actually increase children’s risk of school failure. Head Start’s weaknesses have been noted by many as debate over this proposal has unfolded, but Head Start is far better than many of the private centers and day care homes children attend. NIEER has just released an in-depth look at what the research tells us about the outcomes of early education which can help clarify some confusion seen in media report.

That is why it is so important to understand that the President’s pre-K proposal will raise quality and educational effectiveness, not just increase the number of seats available.  And, it will do this by lifting up the entire field.  The models of successful pre-K for all already operate show the way. Oklahoma, New Jersey’s Abbott program, and West Virginia all integrate private providers and Head Start into state-funded pre-K.  What does this mean?  Head Start teachers nationally are paid barely more than pet sitters and dog walkers. This is Head Start’s Achilles heel. Teachers in private child care make even less.  To use the New Jersey example, when integrated into state pre-K these teachers were given the opportunity to go back to school and get stronger preparation, they were assigned teacher coaches who worked with them as partners to improve their teaching, and their salaries were doubled. Of course, this came with accountability for results, but the vast majority delivered. Teaching quality in all classrooms, private and public, was raised from poor/mediocre to good/excellent.

Planning for this reform process has already begun in most states through their state early learning advisory councils.  In addition, 35 states and the District of Columbia developed reform plans when they applied for funds to expand early education through the federal Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge in 2011. However, only nine states were awarded funds. These applications demonstrate a clear interest and capacity by state governments to partner with the federal government to start all children on the right path. States have never been better poised to prioritize early education and the federal government’s role is welcome support.

The White House preschool proposal has a few key words that are important in understanding how this would play out: “federal-state partnership” and “cost-sharing.” This isn’t the federal government signing a blank check to foot the entire bill for early education; it is limited support based on the number of low-income children in a state and tied to a small number of standards already adopted by many states. If other states do not want to raise quality, they do not have to participate. If they do participate, they will be in charge, not the federal government, which could list its requirements on a single page.  The list of states that we believe might qualify with little or no change to state policy includes not just Oklahoma and Georgia, but also Alabama, Alaska, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Missouri, New Jersey, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Washington, and West VirginiaMississippi is currently advancing legislation that would meet the test as well.

Once it is understood, the President’s pre-K plan should be endorsed by practically everyone. It supports equity and excellence in the pre-K policies advanced by governors of both parties. Both critics and supporters of Head Start should welcome it as Head Start reform that will strengthen that program and improve its effectiveness. Those who want to see more choice and competition should applaud federal support for state programs that incorporate private providers. To return to our New Jersey example, two-thirds of the children are served by private providers supported by local school districts responsible for ensuring quality through teacher coaching and supports to help children with special needs succeed in regular classes.

Given all of its advantages, the primary objection in Congress to the President’s proposal is likely to be that we can’t afford new spending when deficits loom so large. Yet, this is fundamentally a pro-growth, deficit reduction proposal. The biggest returns to this investment will kick in years down the road when the deficit is projected to become a more serious problem. And, it addresses root causes of the deficit–slow growth and rising costs of government including health care costs. Quality pre-K will enhance productivity to increase growth, decrease the costs of school failure and crime, and reduce smoking and other risky behaviors that harm health. Sure, it’s just one small contribution to deficit reduction, but a $50 billion investment over 10 years could contribute a few hundred million dollars to deficit reduction.

Rejecting the President’s pre-K plan is the far more costly alternative. We cannot afford to leave so many children behind with more than a third not ready to succeed at kindergarten entry. We cannot afford the lost growth and increased costs to government when they subsequently fail. We cannot afford failing to recognize that this is not just a problem for the 45 percent of our children who live below 200 percent of poverty, but for the vast majority of families. Deficit hawks, education reformers, and civil rights activists should unite to lead the charge for this proposal in Congress.  States–red and blue–have already shown the way forward. Congress should follow.

– Steve Barnett, Director, NIEER

This entry is cross-posted to The National Journal and is in response to the post “Holy Preschool, Batman” by Fawn Johnson.

Crossing the Finish Line? Race to the Top–Early Learning Challenge Winners Announced

December 16, 2011

The U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services today announced the nine states that will receive funding through the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC).  Thirty-five states, D.C., and Puerto Rico applied for a share of the $500 million available through this competitive program, which has been the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s efforts on early childhood education. The application process operated on a tight timeline: the program was announced over the summer, applications were due in October, and funds had to be awarded before December 31. Specific budgets will be released after the federal departments have conferred with the individual states.

Congratulations to those nine winners announced today, who may only just be regaining their breath after the mad dash to the application finish line. Those states are California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Washington.

These states are no strangers to the Race to the Top competition – six of the nine have previously been awarded funding through the two earlier rounds of RTT targeted toward K-12 improvement; California, Minnesota, and Washington were the only ones not to be awarded RTT funds previously. All state applications are available online, and reviewer comments and scores are posted as well.

The press conference itself was a who’s who of early childhood education celebrities, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. Barbara Bowman, co-founder of the Erikson Institute and NIEER Scientific Advisory Board Member, called for “well-rounded programs offering [children] multiple opportunities to learn” while James Heckman, a Nobel Prize winner for his work on the economics of education, heralded the program as “a critical first step in recognizing the importance of the early years…that will promote better education, health, social, and economic outcomes for all…”

RTT-ELC garnered significant attention within the early childhood community—the inclusion of money under the umbrella of Obama’s trademark Race to the Top during such austere budget times was seen as a good sign. While responses to the specifics of the program were mixed, all observers can agree that RTT-ELC represents a big step as state-funded early learning programs are elevated to an issue of national interest.

As a quick refresher from NIEER’s original coverage, the competition was guided by three sets of priorities: absolute, competitive preference, and invitational.
• Absolute: These must be addressed in each state’s application.

  • Early learning and development standards and kindergarten entry assessments
  • Tiered quality rating and improvement system (QRIS)

• Competitive Preference: These criteria will secure “extra” points for applicants.

  • Include all early learning and development programs in the tiered QRIS

• Invitational: These are areas of particular concern for the Departments.

  • Sustained program effects in early elementary grades
  • Encourage private sector support through public/private partnerships

Consideration for the grants relied on four selection criteria focused on aligning a variety of programs; establishing high-quality standards and comprehensive assessments to improve kindergarten readiness; implementing a statewide tiered quality rating improvement system (QRIS); and developing and retaining an effective early learning workforce.

Winners were also selected  based on demonstrated past commitment to early childhood education. Many stakeholders were concerned that this factor would work against states who are only just starting  state-funded early childhood education programs—perhaps an accurate sentiment given that all grant winners already provide state-funded pre-K under NIEER’s definition; Arizona (whose program was cut in the 2010-2011 school year), Hawaii, Mississippi, and Puerto Rico were all denied funding. However, as reflected by NIEER’s rankings on access and spending, as well as quality standards benchmarks, these programs are largely those who have demonstrated a commitment to early education but still have much work ahead of them. Table 1 shows these rankings for the nine RTT-ELC winners, based out of the 40 states that had state-funded preschool programs in the 2009-2010 school year.

Table 1. 2009-2010 NIEER Yearbook Rankings for RTT-ELC Winners

State Access for 4-year-olds Access for 3-year-olds State (including TANF) Spending per Child All Source Spending Per Child Quality Standards (out of 10)
California 23 6 12 18 4
Delaware 32 None served 7 13 8
Maryland 12 None served 21 3 9
Massachusetts 28 14 24 26 6
Minnesota 39 22 5 11 9
North Carolina 20 None served 13 10 10
Ohio 36 19 23 25 2
Rhode Island 40 None served 9 5 10
Washington 31 16 6 12 9

Only five of the nine winners currently serve any 3-year-olds, and only California breaks into the “top ten” for percent of 3-year-olds served; none make the top ten for percent of 4-year-olds served. Spending is a mixed bag. As can be seen by the difference between state per-child spending and all source spending per child, many of these states already utilize multiple funding streams (from federal and local sources) to supplement state funds. The majority of these programs generally meet a high number of quality benchmarks, with both North Carolina and Rhode Island’s state-funded pre-K programs achieving all 10 of NIEER’s benchmarks. On the other side of the coin, though, are both California and Ohio who have struggled to implement high-quality standards through difficult budget times. Both Delaware and Minnesota already partner with their existing Head Start programs to provide early education, which may have served them well in a competition that calls for alignment across sectors.

During the 2009-2010 school year, these programs served a combined 234,566 young learners in state-funded pre-K programs with a total of $1.2 billion in state and TANF funds. However, these states vary widely in terms of the size of their programs and states. Funding from these grants will not be limited only to state-funded pre-K programs, so it is useful to understand how many 3- and 4-year-olds are currently served in a variety of government-funded early education programs. To that end, Table 2 includes the enrollment and spending figures for these nine state pre-K programs and Table 3 shows total enrollment for state pre-K, special education, and state and federal Head Start.

Table 2. Enrollment and Spending Data for RTT-ELC Winners in 2009-2010

State State Pre-K Enrollment Percent of 3-year-olds Enrolled Percent of 4-year-olds Enrolled State Spending per Child Enrolled in State Pre-K Total Per-child Spending from All known Sources
California 147,185 10% 17% $5,410 $5,571
Delaware 843 0% 7% $6,795 $6,795
Maryland 26,147 0% 35% $4,116 $9,645
Massachusetts 13,468 4% 14% $3,895 $3,895
Minnesota 1,874 1% 1% $7,301 $7,301
North Carolina 31,197 0% 24% $5,239 $7,824
Ohio 5,700 1% 2% $3,902 $3,902
Rhode Island 126 0% 1% $5,556 $9,127
Washington 8,026 2% 7% $6,817 $6,817

Table 3. State and Federal ECE Enrollment for RTT-ELC Winners in 2009-2010

State Enrollment in State Pre-K, Special Education Pre-K, and State and Federal Head Start (Unduplicated)
Percent of 3-year-olds in state Percent of 4-year-olds in state
California 18% 31%
Delaware 11% 18%
Maryland 10% 46%
Massachusetts 14% 26%
Minnesota 10% 15%
North Carolina 7% 35%
Ohio 14% 19%
Rhode Island 10% 19%
Washington 9% 20%

As Sara Mead noted shortly after the announcement, “The list also should clearly underscore that ELC is NOT a pre-k program: Rhode Island, for instance, has only a recently-created pre-k pilot, and Minnesota serves relatively few children in pre-k.” In a program that called so clearly for inter-agency collaboration and recommended private-sector partnerships, the impact will go far beyond just pre-existing state-funded pre-K programs. There will be no shortage of analysis on the impact in Head Start and child care in the coming days, months, and years.

A number of these states have been in the news recently for their early education programs, and the news has not all been good. California merged its pre-K and child care programs in the 2009-2010 school year but has faced continued funding challenges. North Carolina, once a national leader in early childhood education, has been involved in a lengthy legal battle over the program; Steve Barnett recently wrote that the state is “on the verge of abandoning its commitment to high-quality pre-kindergarten education.” Rhode Island only recently started its small pre-K program, while Ohio completely cut one such program as of the 2009-1020 program year. It is hoped the RTT-ELC grants will spur these states to become true national leaders.

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER

– Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER

NIEER’s Comments on Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge

July 11, 2011

As NIEER noted last week, officials from the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services released draft guidelines for the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) program and will be accepting comments on those guidelines until 5pm EDT today. The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) applauds this early learning initiative and offers the following comments.

– The program calls for a focus on children from birth to age 5. This is an ambitious approach. It should be recognized that current federal and state policies are not adequate for 3- to 5-year-olds; states cannot simply assume this work is done and move on to children under age 3. Neither federal nor state programs for 4-year-olds are sufficiently effective, and 3-year-olds are basically ignored by most states’ early education policies. Yet, simultaneously improving all services for children from birth to age 5 would be a tremendous undertaking and states are hard hit now by the recession. States should be permitted to take on major investments in one sector or program at a time in the context of a broader plan for the entire system. They should not be pressed to produce unrealistic plans for creating seamless high-quality, birth to age 5 systems in a short time with inadequate resources.

– Far too much publicly subsidized and provided early care and education is of such low quality that it fails to significantly enhance child development. Some publicly funded services may even have modest negative impacts on children. The questionable quality of services provided by some public programs for young children makes quality enhancement a more pressing goal than expanding access. Increased enrollment should become a goal only after a program is good enough to substantially enhance learning and development. Infant-toddler care should have a particularly high priority for quality improvement.

– Quality Rating and Improvement Systems (QRIS) are not a proven approach to improving student learning. A QRIS can incentivize some programs to improve their quality for higher reimbursement rates, but those programs are likely to be the ones with the most resources from the start. Too often, programs that are struggling financially will be unable to raise their quality enough to earn the higher rate without more assistance than most QRIS provide. For various reasons QRIS may provide little more than window dressing with respect to improvements in quality or financial incentives for improvement. Ratings systems can become ineffectual. Increased investment in research is needed to learn from different state experiences as they develop and implement QRIS.

– Assessment is a useful tool in continuous program improvement, but must be used with caution. Assessments alone should not be used to make high-stakes decisions about individual programs or children. The regulations call for increasing understanding among educators as to the uses and limitations of various assessment types—this is paramount to ensuring data is collected and used responsibly to improve programs. Assessments aligned with standards can give useful information on what is and is not working in a program, and should be used to guide trainings, professional development, and technical assistance. Yet, many professionals do not sufficiently understand the strengths or limitations of various assessments and the appropriate purposes for which they may be used. For example, it is common to see screening tests used completely inappropriately. Beyond the particulars of assessment, it is important that early childhood professionals be educated about the difficulties in making causal inferences about programs from assessment data and the kinds of evaluation designs required for valid inferences.

– The development of the required kindergarten entry assessment for all students is an ambitious feat, and applicants may need significant guidance in implementing a strategy that works. Current regulations call for educators to implement assessments, though policymakers must be warned of the potential bias of not using third-party evaluators. A kindergarten entry assessment can also only supply so much information regarding readiness and progress without some prior assessment to use as a “baseline.”

– Developing valid and reliable assessments that can be used for every child entering public kindergarten by the 2014-2015 year is a large task with considerable expense. The federal government provided Race to the Top assessment grants for consortia of states to develop valid assessments for students in the upper grades. A similar grant program for early learning would enable states to work together on an early childhood assessment system that is valid, reliable, and manageable. Such an endeavor is likely to be unaffordable state by state; additionally, the field could benefit from collaborations among states so that information collected is comparable across state lines.

– Workforce development is an important goal in providing high-quality early learning experiences. We support the regulations’ focus on improving educators’ knowledge and competencies, and further professionalizing early childhood education to recruit and retain the best teachers. Collaborating with institutions of higher education is essential to ensuring credential requirements truly reflect the skills and knowledge needed to teach young children. Professional preparation and development efforts should formally integrate with higher education to permit seamless career development. Every child deserves a well-educated lead classroom teacher, and one route to this is a bachelor’s degree with an appropriate specialization. Teachers should be properly trained in curriculum, assessment, and pedagogy. Similarly, professionals benefit from supervision by properly trained administrators (e.g., principals, directors, coordinators). Furthermore, NIEER recommends that states address policies for scheduling and staffing patterns requiring adequate time away from children to plan curricula based on assessment and to engage in professional development.

– Judging states based on commitment and investment since 2007 may disadvantage those states whose attempts to develop early learning systems have been slowed by budgetary constraints, especially given the fiscal conditions of these last four years. These states could significantly benefit from additional funding and technical assistance offered through RTT-ELC. Peer reviews should use caution when measuring states against the criteria of prior commitment, as these funds may be exactly the “jump start” some states need to catalyze early learning investment.

NIEER looks forward to the release of the final regulations and to the chance for states to bolster their programs for the youngest learners.

– W. Steven Barnett
Co-Director, NIEER

And They’re Off!: Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge Details Announced

July 7, 2011

Last week, in conference calls with stakeholders and reporters, officials from the Departments of Education (ED) and Health and Human Services (HHS) provided further details on the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) program. The Obama administration announced $500 million for the competitive grants in late May, and will accept feedback on the draft guidelines until July 11 before finalizing the regulations.

The competition is guided by three sets of priorities: absolute, competitive preference, and invitational:

• Absolute: These must be addressed in each state’s application.

  • Early learning and development standards and kindergarten entry assessments
  • Tiered quality rating and improvement system (QRIS)

• Competitive Preference: These criteria will secure “extra” points for applicants.

  • Include all early learning and development programs in the tiered QRIS

• Invitational: These are areas of particular concern for the Departments.

  • Sustained program effects in early elementary grades
  • Encourage private sector support through public/private partnerships

The program will rely on four selection criteria:

• Building successful state systems that align a variety of programs (Head Start, child care, state-funded pre-K, etc.).
• High-quality standards and comprehensive assessments focused on a broad range of domains to enter kindergarten ready to succeed. This includes engaging and supporting families and encouraging healthy development across domains.
• Developing high-quality, accountable programs using a robust tiered QRIS. This necessitates common statewide tiered program standards, promoting participation in QRIS across sectors, implementing rating and monitoring, and validating effectiveness of the QRIS.
• Developing and retaining an effective, high-quality workforce through improving knowledge, competencies, and credentials across the early childhood workforce.  States should also work with the higher education community to engage in this process.

Grant caps were developed by ranking each state based on its share of the national population of children birth to age 5 from low-income families.  Recognizing that rural communities have unique needs, the Departments may “exercise discretion” in ensuring states with large rural communities are well-represented.

Category Budget Cap States
Category 1 Up to $100M California, Florida, New York, Texas
Category 2 Up to $70M Arizona, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania
Category 3 Up to $60M Alabama, Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin
Category 4 Up to $50M Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia, Wyoming

After reviewing the full text released by ED and HHS, a few trends are clear throughout the draft guidelines:

• There is a clear emphasis on collaboration across sectors and settings.  The grant ultimately seeks to help states remove various early learning programs from their separate silos and create a coherent statewide system. The Departments provide a comprehensive list of program settings to be involved, including state-funded pre-K programs, Early Head Start and Head Start programs, and programs funded by Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), and/or the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF).
• States are expected to use RTT-ELC funds to supplement (and not supplant) state funding for these programs, as well as leverage existing resources to create stable funding both during and after the grant period. Particular attention is drawn to the quality set-asides in CCDF.  Secretaries Duncan and Sebelius had earlier emphasized the potential of utilizing funding from CCDF, Early Head Start and Head Start programs, IDEA, and Title I.  The feds are so eager for states to consider leveraging CCDF funds for early learning initiatives that they may submit revisions to their CCDF plans (due August 1) to align with their RTT-ELC applications.
• In this same open letter, governors were encouraged to utilize existing resources, both in terms of building on existing programs as well as working with organizations and agencies in their states already in the field. In particular, they singled out existing State Advisory Councils on Early Childhood Education and Care (SACs). In fact, having an operational SAC is an eligibility requirement of the grant, though how much participation will be required of SACs is not explicated.
• The Departments call for the development of a high-quality workforce through improving knowledge, competencies, and credentials. While the regulations call for collaboration between state programs and higher education institutions to improve credentialing, there are no clear guidelines as to what makes a “good” credential or well-qualified teacher.  Policymakers must ensure that the goal of increasing the number of credential recipients is not at the expense of maintain and improving the credential quality.
• The regulations call for increasing access to high-quality programs for high-need children. The best way to achieve this is by improving the quality of programs already enrolling children, rather than creating additional programs that cannot maintain high quality. In many states, the early childhood services offered are not of the highest quality to contribute to long-term growth. To expand the reach of these programs would be counterproductive.

Draft guidelines are available for the grant program at Comments will be accepted through 5 PM (EDT) on July 11. The final guidelines will be published in mid-August, and states must submit applications by mid-October. The grant period will be from December 2011 to December 2015.

Rundown of Organization Responses

There has been no shortage of analysis and commentary in the early learning blogosphere since the May announcement of the funds.  Below are links to some helpful recommendations and suggestions from organizations regarding the Challenge.  Please note that most of these documents were assembled before guidelines were further specified and so may only briefly touch on issues that are now paramount to applications.

The Huffington Post’s Education section gets reaction to the draft guidelines, including some comments from NIEER’s co-director, Steve Barnett.
• New America Foundation provides an archive of their Early Ed Watch blog’s coverage of RTT-ELC.
• Sara Mead at Education Week has voiced several concerns about the program, including peer review, the lack of clear role for foundations, and the vague goals initially offered, starting with the official announcement.
• The National Journal’s Expert Blog on Education offers a veritable pu pu platter of recommendations and cautions.
• CLASP offers research and resources directed towards each area highlighted in the ELC goals.
• Marian Wright Edelman and the Children’s Defense Fund put RTT-ELC in context.
• The First Five Years Fund’s The Starting Point blog provides strategies for early brainstorming on this short timeline.

Over the next few weeks, we expect to see more recommendations, suggestions, and commentary as experts and policymakers digest this information.

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER
– Jim Squires, Senior Research Fellow, NIEER

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

At a Critical Crossroads: Why Austerity Now is a False Cure

December 3, 2010

I have written in recent weeks about the difficult circumstances in which middle- and low-income families have found themselves over the past decade, as amply illustrated by the most recent census report, and pointed out the hardships the recession is placing on public budgets in general and early childhood education in particular. That this confluence of events poses a grave danger to the progress made in early childhood education should be apparent to one and all. Yet it apparently is not in this political season of achieving fiscal austerity at all costs.

This is an ominous sign for those of us whose responsibility it is to look at public investments through the prism of the returns they provide the nation in the form of future human capital formation (better-educated workforce) and our global competitiveness. Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, chairmen of the president’s deficit commission charged with making recommendations for returning the nation to prosperity recognize the need to invest in education. But they were unable to convince enough elected officials in their group, whose ears are bent to the call for austerity sweeping the country, to sign on to the report.

Now come two reports that offer sensible analyses and additional prescriptions for making critical investments in programs like early education while setting the nation on a course to recovery. Both point out that at this crossroads in our economy, austerity at this point in time represents a false cure. One, a special report in the November issue of The American Prospect, devotes 10 articles to various aspects of the economic debate. Its purpose is, as editor Robert Kuttner writes, to disentangle the proper sequencing of recovery spending and deficit reduction, agreeing with Bowles, Simpson, Alice Rivlin, Pete Domenici, and others that the nation needs better fiscal balance once we emerge from this deep recession. But now, when unemployment is unacceptably high and families are struggling, is no time to cut back on social investment. In fact, stepping up social investment at this time is critical to achieving the recovery the deficit hawks seek through austerity.

In the Prospect report, political scientists Christopher Howard and Richard Valelly aptly refer to the post-election obsession with austerity as “deficit-attention disorder” pointing out that even though Americans are worried about the deficit, the great majority of polls show they are far more worried about the economy’s weakness than the nation’s public debt. Once again, the public is displaying more wisdom than many of those representing them in Washington give them credit for. Perhaps some recall that during the Great Depression, it was the premature fiscal tightening that pushed the U.S. economy back into recession — an outcome we now run the risk of repeating.

Economist James K. Galbraith points out that fully half the increase in the budget deficit is due to collapsing tax revenues. Less than 10 percent is due to increases in discretionary public expenditure such as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. He separates the deficit into the active deficit — comprised of social spending for things like stimulating employment and education — and the passive deficit, which is incurred due to high unemployment which reduces tax revenues necessary to pay for public spending. It is, in fact, this passive, recession-induced deficit that makes it impossible, no matter how much austerity is imposed on social spending, to wipe out the public debt. Read the rest of this entry »

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