Over the past several months, I have spent a lot of time talking to early childhood stakeholders about collaboration, and today the Early Education Initiative is releasing a policy brief based on that reporting. "The Next Step in Systems-Building: Early Childhood Advisory Councils and Federal Efforts to Promote Policy Alignment in Early Childhood." It provides a status report on all 50 states and the District of Columbia.
You'd think that sharing information and working together nicely would be second nature to leaders in early childhood policy. After all, it is something they teach in kindergarten. But in practice, collaboration -- or more specifically, policy alignment -- is more than just a matter of making sure everyone knows what everyone is doing and playing nicely. It takes hard work.
What makes policy alignment so hard? Government programs serving young children and their families are spread across departments of education, health and welfare. Non-profit organizations and private childcare providers also play a significant role in caring for and improving the lives of young children. The result is a tangled web of avoidable dysfunction. Low-income parents may not know that their children are eligible for Medicaid or Head Start, kindergarten teachers are given no information on the background of their incoming students, providers file redundant paperwork for different agencies, and the list goes on.
In recent years, several states have taken steps to address this issue by bringing policymakers and stakeholders together in early learning councils and having them, as a group, outline aligned policy objectives across multiple fields and ultimately create a high-functioning system of early childhood services. Based on the success of councils places like Illinois and Pennsylvania, Congress mandated that every state designate a State Early Childhood Advisory Council (ECAC) as part of the Head Start Reauthorization passed in December 2007.
After floundering for a year, ECACs are suddenly attracting new attention in Washington and in state capitols. Through the stimulus, ECACs finally received promised funding - ranging from $500,000 to more than $10.6 million per state, depending on size. ECACs also play a central role in the proposed Early Learning Challenge Grants legislation that is expected to be taken up by the Senate in the coming months. ECACs are being positioned to play a major role in early childhood policy, but what do we know about them?
First, the good news: States are making good progress on developing their ECACs, with much of the activity taking place this fall. In fact, many states already had something close to an ECAC in place in 2007 when the Head Start law was reauthorized. These states are being re-energized by the new federal guidelines, which is helping them fine-tune their council's structure and vision, individuals close to the process tell me. Of course, the funding is a big boost too, as many states had no funding at all for their ECACs. More importantly, several states are creating ECACs for the first time, finally bringing together relevant stakeholders to build an early childhood system in their state. (See the report for a state-by-state breakdown of ECAC development and funding). I was especially impressed by those states that were able to get multiple stakeholders together on an email chain or on a conference call with me - having this kind of natural communication network is an important first step.
But don't get your hopes up yet. In many states, the men and women I talked to had a story to tell about similar councils that started a few years back and showed so much promise but became effectively defunct because they lost funding or suffered from turnover in a state's governorship. Most states also receive grants from the five other federal programs that promote early childhood systems-building (such as the Early Childhood Comprehensive Systems Initiative) but these programs have not been a uniform success. In a couple of isolated cases I was told of some real tension (such turf wars) between key individuals or organizations involved in early childhood policy. And sometimes, officials were not well-informed about the roles they are supposed to play. In reporting this paper, I came across people who were obvious potential members for their state's council, even people who are required to be on the council, but who were first hearing about it from me.
This time around, we should see these councils making a greater difference. Because of higher-level membership requirements -- as well as the requirement that the states develop a plan to be submitted to the U.S. Department of Health and Human services -- ECACs are more likely to create a comprehensive system-building plan and will have the right people at the table to make sure it happens. Plus, the federal funding commitments give them a buffer against cyclical state budgets. Yet there is also a risk that ECACs could go the way of the several attempts at policy alignment that came before them. This means those states that are already ahead on the policy alignment front could emerge as winners, in a better position to win competitive federal grants, while those states that are just starting their system-building process could falter once again. Of particular concern is South Dakota, which has officially decided not establish an ECAC due to insufficient state funds.
The convenings, discussions and decisions that will determine the vitality of ECACs are happening right now, and new information about ECACs can be found every week. As states work to finalize their applications for federal ECAC funding by the August 1, 2010 deadline, we have 10 recommendations for state and federal policymakers to make sure that ECACs can live up to their promise to power a vision for effective early childhood systems. Read those recommendations and the full report here.