Questions abound as to how funds for early learning will be distributed in the next $700-million round of Race to the Top (RTTT), a federal grant competition for states. Earlier this month, Congress approved funding for the highly visible education reform program and stipulated that this time the competition would require states to show progress in early learning as well.
We may not know how the program will work until May 15, which is when federal agencies’ spending plans are due to the House and Senate appropriations committees. But that isn’t stopping many early childhood advocates from outlining their vision for the program and lining up members of Congress who agree.
The new program came out of the recent budget bill, which as we reported last week, provides a modest boost in funding to federal early learning programs through September 30, 2011. Race to the Top was among the funded programs – along with new legislative language in the bill that makes early care and education one of the program’s priorities.
Specifically, lawmakers added the early learning provision as an education reform “assurance” – a reform area that states must show the U.S. Department of Education they’ve made progress toward. The assurances were written in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009. The first assurance required states to maintain financial support in fiscal years 2009, 2010, and 2011 for elementary, secondary and higher education at least at fiscal year 2006 levels. The other four assurances, were included as reform areas that – in order to win Race to the Top grants – states had to show that they were making changes that ensured 1) effective teachers 2) high-quality standards and assessments 3) data to support instruction and 4) plans to turnaround low-performing schools.
Organizations Advocate for a Separate Competition
Over the past week, there has been much uncertainty among early learning stakeholders and advocates about how the Department of Education will execute the language in the new budget bill. Some early childhood organizations are promoting a separate competition for early education that aligns with the originally proposed early learning challenge fund.
In fact, Congresswoman Mazie K. Hirono (D-HI) has garnered 43 signatories from fellow members of the House of Representatives on a letter that her office will send to Secretary Duncan and Secretary Sebelius calling for such a program. The letter urges the Departments to “use a significant portion of the funds provided in Race to the Top for a separate state competition to serve the needs of infants, toddlers and preschoolers.”
(Early childhood advocacy organizations that endorsed the letter include: National Head Start Association, Pre-K Now, First Five Years Fund, National Association for the Education of Young Children, Early Education and Care Consortium, Center for Law and Social Policy, Zero to Three, First Focus Campaign for Children and the National Women’s Law Center.)
The push for a separate program may stem from concerns that early learning might not be given equitable weight in applications compared to the other priorities. For example, what might be the fate of a state that has made huge gains in supporting pre-k programs and connecting early childhood data, but hasn’t made the other RTTT criteria a high priority? Conversely, could a state that has been focused primarily on K-12 reforms with only a slight nod to early learning still win the RTTT money? After all, until now, RTTT has been a K-12 focused program. Is it possible that this RTTT program would direct a smaller proportion of funds to the youngest learners, as appeared to be the case in the Investing in Innovation (i3) competition?
Language Ambiguity in the Continuing Appropriations Act of 2011
The budget bill, known as the Continuing Appropriations Act of 2011, leaves it to the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services to figure out implementation. Beyond including early learning as one of the assurances that guide Race to the Top, the language in the full-year continuing resolution is pretty vague. The bill does not designate a specific amount of money for early learning nor does it specifically state that there should or should not be separate state competition for early learning.
What it does say is that coupled with the new funding for Race to the Top is a new priority: early learning. The budget bill also says that the Secretaries of Education and Health and Human Services must jointly administer funds for early learning on terms set forth by the secretaries. Exactly how that will be coordinated – especially given that the rest of the grant program is clearly the sole responsibility of the Department of Education – is an open question.
The Act also says that future Race to the Top awards may be made based on previously submitted applications, but not that they must. A new competition could be held.
As we wrote in our previous post, the Act says that for states to qualify for funds they will need to show what they are already undertaking the following, or at least planning to:
- Increase the number and percentage of low-income and disadvantaged infants, toddlers, and preschoolers who are enrolled in high-quality early learning programs;
- Design and implement an integrated system of high-quality early learning programs and services; and
- Ensure that any use of assessments is consistent with the recommendations of the National Research Council’s reports on early childhood. (One key report is Early Childhood Assessment: Why, What, and How)
At a press conference yesterday, Early Ed Watch asked U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan about his views on what kind of opportunity this change to Race to the Top presents. “I hope we can replicate what we’ve done with K-12 education reform through Race to the Top in the early childhood space,” he said.
History of Race to the Top
Early Ed Watch has written about the RTTT program before (including the disappointment voiced by many in early education was left out as a priority in the first round), but here is a brief recap of the program: With $4.35 billion made available by ARRA, states competed in 2010 by showing how they would meet 19 criteria under the four assurances, from turning around low-achieving schools to developing and adopting the Common Core standards. States could also gain an additional edge by showing a commitment to improving science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education. In the first and second rounds of RTTT, early education was included as an “invitational priority,” meaning states could share information about current or planned early education initiatives in their state, but they did not accrue any points for doing so.
The Department of Education held two grant rounds for Race to the Top. Two states, Delaware and Tennessee won in the first round (40 states and the District of Columbia submitted applications) and nine states and the District of Columbia won grants in the second round (46 states and the District of Columbia submitted applications).
Some states amended laws to increase or remove caps on the number of public charter schools allowed. Others states changed laws and policies related to teacher accountability, evaluation and tenure. A whopping 35 states and DC adopted the common core standards (and today 42 states and DC have adopted them). All of which was primarily done to improve their chances of winning a Race to the Top grant.
The program is also not without its challenges. With leadership changes in some states because of the November elections, progress toward implementation of their RTTT plans has been slow. Other states have had difficulty keeping their promises due to persisting state funding issues.
History of the Early Learning Challenge Fund
While Race to the Top was humming along, early childhood advocates have been waiting for their own competitive grant program – the Early Learning Challenge fund. In his fiscal year 2010 budget request (May 2009), President Obama first proposed the idea of a $300 million fund to improve the quality of early learning systems in the states. Over the summer of 2009, the proposal was approved as part of the House version of the Student Aid and Financial Responsibility Act (SAFRA), a student loan reform bill. But it was dropped six months later when SAFRA and health care legislation were passed jointly by Congress and signed by the President.
Under the initial Early Learning Challenge Fund proposal, to win a grant, states would have needed to commit to build comprehensive early childhood systems that included efforts from developing rigorous early learning standards to creating a coordinated system for facilitating screenings for disability, health, and mental health needs.
In the budget bill passed this month, however, the inclusion of early learning in RTTT is a sparse version of the detailed provisions of the original challenge fund. Much of what we’ve heard from Department officials suggests there may likely be separate competition that falls along the lines of a challenge fund-like program. But, here at Early Ed Watch, we aren’t convinced that is the best way to go. When spread across multiple states, $700 million won’t go that far. If the federal agencies decided to carve out a pot specifically for early learning, would enough be left to have any meaningful impact on early childhood systems?
Here at the Early Education Initiative, we wonder if this new RTTT may be a real opportunity for states to think about how early education should, in fact, be part of their education reform strategies. A cohesive RTTT could help states to better align early learning programs – serving infants, toddlers and pre-kindergarteners – with the early grades of elementary school. The early education assurance within Race to the Top could spur PreK-3rd efforts that explore joint professional development for and collaboration between early childhood programs and early grade teachers, quality professional development for principals, linkages between early childhood systems and K-12 data systems, full-day kindergarten, and the alignment of developmentally appropriate curriculum and standards for infant and toddler programs, pre-kindergarten programs and all the grades up through the third grade.
There are many questions to be answered: What will states vying for Race to the Top grants be asked to include about their current and proposed early education efforts? How will early education be weighted against the other priorities? Should there be a pot of money carved out for a separate early education competition? What would it look like? And how much money would be directed to early education? What will states be willing to commit to when it comes to improving early education to get a competitive edge?
As May 15 approaches, we should get a better idea about the basic plan that will be put forward by the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services for using the $700 million. But it will likely be a longer wait for the specific requirements of the competition or competitions.
When they are available, there will likely be a public comment period. So stay tuned.
Let us know what you think: Should there be a separate competition for early learning or not?
UPDATED (6/6 11:30 am): Parent Child Home Program and Michigan Early Childhood Investment Corporation have also endorsed Congresswoman Hirono's letter.