The Department of Ed Needs Bang for its Buck in Preschool Development Grants

early childhood education. According to the Department of Education, the dollars will be used for a competition to promote systems-building for high-quality early learning, similar to the Preschool Development Grants program included in President Obama’s original pre-K proposal last February.

The last few years have shown substantially more focus from the Department of Education, as well as from state governments, into building infrastructure for early learning programs, like creating Tiered Quality Rating and Improvement Systems; implementing early learning guidelines that cover multiple domains of learning; and strengthening connections between pre-K and the early grades of elementary school. The new Preschool Development Grants program should extend that work to build, develop, and expand high-quality pre-K programs even further.

But because the funding is so limited–just $250 million, or half the size of the first-round Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge competition– its potential impact is limited. That’s why the Department should think carefully about how to maximize its bang for its buck. Yesterday, the Department held a public meeting to gather comments on how the grant competition should be structured. Though New America didn’t submit official comments, we’ve compiled responses to some of the Department’s questions as to how the program should be structured.

How should the competition address the direction in the Conference Report to the FY14 Consolidated Appropriations Act for awards to be made to two types of grantees:  low-capacity States with small or no State-funded preschool programs and high-capacity States that have a larger State-funded preschool program?

The Department should award three types of grants to ensure states are using the dollars wisely — to expand not just access to, but quality of, pre-K programs. States that have limited or low-capacity programs, but provide high quality learning where those programs are in place, should be awarded access grants. Access grants would be used to expand the number of slots for low- and middle-income children in the same high-quality settings, but the state would still use a portion of the funds to improve quality in whichever of the president’s proposed quality foci it is lacking. Based on data from NIEER, examples of states in this category could be Alabama, Minnesota, and Missouri.

States with high-capacity, but low-quality, pre-K programs should receive smaller quality grants. Given that those states are already covering the substantial costs of placing children in programs, the funds needed to improve quality are likely less than they would need to simply expand access.  Based on data from NIEER, examples of states in this category could be Florida and Texas.

Finally, states with either low-capacity and low-quality programs, or with no existing program, should be eligible to apply for planning grants. These would be the smallest awards. Given that those states have demonstrated little interest in expanding access or quality for pre-K to date, they should use the grant period to develop those plans, which would be implemented after the fact with non-federal dollars. These grants are meant to ensure all states have the option of working toward high-quality, high-access pre-K programs. Based on data from NIEER, examples of states in this category could be Ohio, Utah or  any of the other  states without pre-K programs.

For all three categories, “high-quality” should be defined as approaching the levels of quality promoted in the president’s own pre-K proposal and reflected in pending House and Senate legislation. We expand slightly on those standards and recommend:

  • all lead teachers with or working toward a bachelor’s degree (and assistant teachers working toward an associate degree);

  • low teacher-child ratios and small class sizes;

  • professional development for teachers and staff that includes the use of tools that promote instructional quality, such as the CLASS (Classroom Assessment Scoring System);

  • a full-day program equivalent to the length of the first-grade day;

  • developmentally appropriate curricula aligned with the state early learning standards;

  • salaries comparable to K-12 teacher salaries;

  • ongoing program evaluation; and

  • and the provision of comprehensive, onsite services for children.

How should subgrantees that are early learning providers demonstrate strong partnerships with local education agencies and how should local education agencies demonstrate strong partnerships with early learning providers?

There are a few ways to encourage alignment across the pre-K and K-12 providers in an area. States should facilitate those partnerships by mapping where most of the children in a particular pre-K program attend K-12 school and informing both providers so that they can form closer relationships. Additionally, schools should establish joint professional development for kindergarten teachers and the pre-K teachers in those feeder schools.

Finally, states should help school districts to establish information-sharing agreements between pre-K programs and elementary schools. Some states — West Virginia for example — already have such arrangements, in which kindergarten teachers can know at the start of the school year where their incoming students attended school before kindergarten, the results of any assessments or screenings, and all other relevant information about the child.

What factors should we consider, if any, in distinguishing State applicants based on their past commitment to early learning and/or participation in federal or state grant programs, e.g., success or lack of success in previous related grant competitions, current federal support for early learning, or past State investment in early learning)?

State investment in early learning, birth-to-school-entry, should be considered for applicants to the access grant program. Because the Preschool Development Grant funds are issued competitively and won’t be available on an ongoing basis, states need to have a demonstrated interest in and commitment to expanding access to high-quality pre-K before they receive those largest awards.

Moreover, given the scarcity of federal dollars for early learning year after year, states that have already received Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge competitive grants should be eligible to apply only for the access grants. Those states have presumably used their RTT-ELC dollars to begin the hard work of improving quality, and should not expect to fund that work with federal dollars on an ongoing basis.

All applicants should also be required to have a working state-level Early Learning Council. Though basic, it is essential that states have the ongoing assistance from and collaboration with a variety of education stakeholders. Early Learning Councils will help to ensure at least a basic level of coordination.

How can we use these grants to support a more streamlined system of high-quality programs and services for children across the birth through age five continuum?

The hodgepodge of federal early learning programs that exists has forced providers to establish ways of blending and braiding funding from different federal, state, and local funding streams. The Departments of Education and Health and Human Services should agree to work together to grant states waivers of burdensome requirements that make blending funds more difficult. However, it is critical that both agencies closely monitor states’ applications for waivers and their behavior after the waivers are granted to ensure quality doesn’t slip.

What can we do to encourage the sustainability of services after the grant ends (e.g. encouraging or requiring non-federal matching funds, maintenance of effort provisions, or supplement not supplant policies)?

Given that federal dollars for pre-K are as limited as they are, and that the Race to the Top funds used for the Preschool Development Grants will be available only in the short-term, states should offer dedicated sources of funding to be eligible for the pre-K dollars. The largest match should be for access grants, in which states will certainly have continuing costs following the expiration of the federal dollars. For quality grants, in which many of the costs are front-loaded, and planning grants, in which states will have implementation costs but few additional costs in the early stages, the matches should be smaller.

What kind of absolute, competitive, or invitational priorities should we consider in designing the competition?

The competition’s priorities should vary based on the type of grant that states receive. Absolute priorities for access grants, states should have an absolute priority of working towards the quality indicators similar to those outlined in President Obama’s pre-K plan. As listed above, those include:

  • all lead teachers with or working toward a bachelor’s degree (and assistant teachers working toward an associate degree);

  • low teacher-child ratios and small class sizes;

  • professional development for teachers and staff that includes the use of tools such as the CLASS (Classroom Assessment Scoring System);

  • a full-day program equivalent to the length of the first-grade day;

  • developmentally appropriate curricula aligned with the state early learning standards;

  • salaries comparable to K-12 teacher salaries;

  • ongoing program evaluation; and

  • and the provision of comprehensive, onsite services for children.

Applications for the quality and planning grants should both include a focus on improving the workforce, one area in which many states are lacking currently. Those would include the teacher credentialing, professional development, and salary parity issues noted in the list above.

States should all be permitted to write to two competitive priorities, whether applying for access, quality, or planning grants. First, all applicants should have the opportunity to focus on dual language learners, consistently an ignored group, but one that will require substantial attention in the early years to master critical literacy skills. Second, all states should receive points towards their application if they include a focus on PreK-3rd grade alignment. Those practices could include more closely matching early learning and K-12 college and career readiness standards; developing linked curricula, assessment systems, and data systems; and providing professional development and collaboration opportunities onsite together for pre-K and kindergarten teachers, ideally pulling in first and second grade teachers, as well.

Finally, there should be an invitational priority, to which any state may write, for expanding or planning to expand high-quality full-day kindergarten offerings in the state. Though an essential part of the early learning continuum and to elementary education success, and strong evidence of a state’s commitment to early learning, kindergarten falls outside the scope of this program, so it is included only as an invitational priority.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

Clare McCann

Clare McCann is a policy analyst with the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation. Find her on Twitter: @claremccann