Author Archives: Sara Mead

Reflecting on 10 Years at Bellwether

This is my last week at Bellwether. Next week, I’ll be joining D.C.’s Office of the State Superintendent of Education as Assistant Superintendent for Early Learning. As a District of Columbia resident, I’ve long been incredibly proud of my city’s leadership in early childhood. I’m thrilled to work with State Superintendent Hanseul Kang and our exceptional early childhood professionals; schools; and community, health, and advocacy partners to support children, families, and early childhood educators through this current crisis and build an even stronger system going forward. But I’m also sad to leave Bellwether, an organization I’ve helped build over the past decade and whose mission I believe in deeply.

Bellwether was created because its founders knew that achieving the results we seek for all children requires strong organizations, system and policy changes grounded in evidence, and leadership with a deep commitment to equity. We were — and still are — unique in that many organizations focus on one of these areas, but very few work across all of them. 

When I joined in February 2010, I never dreamed that I would be here for over 10 years or that Bellwether would grow from five people to over 60. Bellwether has taught me not just how to be a smart policy wonk but also a strategic advisor and people manager. Through collaborating with scores of early childhood and K-12 clients, I’ve deepened my understanding of the business, operating, policy, and practice challenges facing early childhood and K-12 educators and systems leaders. And I’ve seen first hand some of the most promising strategies and innovations that leaders around the country are putting in place to address those challenges. 

My early days at Bellwether coincided with the first year of the Obama presidency and the trough of the Great Recession. States were eagerly enacting new education policies tied to Race to the Top, Common Core, and expansion of charter schools. There was a great energy around reform and a lot of enthusiasm to try new things. A decade later, much has changed in the economic, political, and education policy landscape. We now face tremendous public health, economic, and political crises that we never expected in 2010.

And many of those who have led change are wondering how to renew momentum in a landscape where other issues dominate public dialogue. Some ideas that pushed education progress over the last two decades appear to have run their course and are ripe for reinvention. At the same time, policymakers, parents, and the public have increasingly recognized the importance of early childhood care and education — and the need to do better by our youngest kids and families. Now, COVID is creating major financial and operational challenges for the early childhood sector, in large part because it amplifies existing flaws in early childhood business models and funding mechanisms that were already broken. 

These are big challenges with no easy answers. But some of the things I’ve learned at Bellwether over the past decade may help leaders chart a course forward: 

Continue reading

COVID-19 Sheds Light on Existing Weaknesses in Early Childhood Systems

COVID-19 highlights the foundational weaknesses in our nation’s approach to early care and education. Unlike K-12 public schools, which are funded primarily by state and local government and operated by government entities or under their oversight, early childhood care and education in the United States is funded primarily through parent tuition payments and delivered through a patchwork of providers. These include center-based child care operated by for- and nonprofit entities ranging from small businesses to national chains, home-based childcare, Head Start, and school-based pre-K programs, all of which operate under different regulations and resources depending on the type of program they are, the age of children they serve, and where their funding comes from. 

It’s a complicated system given these underlying financing, structural, and policy factors, which COVID-19 has only underscored. The existing fragmentation has complicated efforts to protect children’s health and safety during the virus, ensure care for children of essential workers, or even collect accurate data to understand what is going on. And the system’s underfunding and reliance on parent payments has made early childhood providers and workers incredibly vulnerable in the current situation. 

As state and local governments began to close schools and nonessential businesses in mid-March, early childhood providers and state system leaders faced several urgent needs. These included making decisions about whether to close child care programs to protect child and staff safety, ensuring continuing access to child care for essential frontline workers, and providing early intervention and development support to children at home. As the chart below shows, these immediate needs cut across interrelated dimensions of health, economics, and child development — as does the early childhood field itself.

chart: "COVID-19 is creating new early childhood sector needs, and exacerbating others"

As early childhood leaders and policymakers begin to look around the corner — to think about economic recovery as the public health crisis begins to subside — new questions and challenges are emerging. Many early childhood providers have lost substantial revenues as a result of COVID-related closures and reduced demand for childcare, and are at risk of going out of business. Getting America back to work will require stabilizing the child care sector to enable workers across the economy to return to their jobs, or find new ones. Continue reading

New National Data on Preschool Programs Particularly Important Due to COVID-19

Most state-funded pre-K programs, like most schools, are closed due to the coronavirus. But most states do not have the same state constitutional obligation to provide pre-K as they do for K-12 students, so pre-K programs can be particularly vulnerable to state budget cuts when tough economic times reduce state revenues. 

As states begin to face the fiscal and economic consequences of COVID-19, the National Institute for Early Education Research released its State Preschool Yearbook, which provides the most comprehensive and accurate information available on enrollment in, funding for, and features of state-funded pre-K programs.

Cover of the National Institute for Early Education Research 2019 State Preschool YearbookNIEER’s current report looks at data from the 2018-19 school year and finds that: 

  • State pre-K programs enrolled 1.63 million children in 2018-19. Most of these children (about 85%) are 4, with far fewer 3-year-olds served.  
  • The number of children served in state-funded pre-K increased slightly (by about 3%) from the 2017-18 to 2018-18 school year, with most of that increase for 4-year-olds. 
  • Taking into account Head Start and special education preschool, about 44% of 4-year-olds and 17% of 3-year-olds attend some type of publicly funded program.* This has stayed largely level even as state pre-K enrollment has increased, in part because some Head Start slots have shifted to serve infants and toddlers, particularly in places with high pre-K enrollment. 
  • Access to state pre-K varies widely by state: Only 10 states serve more than 50% of 4-year-olds and 5 serve 70% or more. Twelve states with preschool programs serve 10% or less of 4-year-olds, and six states have no state-funded pre-K. Only 7 states and the District of Columbia serve more than 10% of 3-year-olds. 

During and in the wake of the 2008 Recession, states cut spending on pre-K and other early childhood programs. While pre-K enrollment levels continued to grow, per-child funding decreased, as states sought to stretch less funding across more kids, with detrimental impacts on program quality.  Continue reading

How Recent Federal Coronavirus Legislation Impacts Charter Schools

It’s now been about a month since U.S. public schools began closing in response to the novel coronavirus. During that time charter school leaders have scrambled to put in place distance learning, get kids fed, support staff in learning to work virtually, communicate with parents, and navigate numerous other unanticipated challenges. Leaders juggling so many competing demands hardly have time to pay attention to what’s coming out of Washington. But federal coronavirus response legislation passed in March has numerous implications for charters, along with other public schools and education nonprofits. 

Banner from new resource: "WHAT CHARTER SCHOOLS NEED TO KNOW<br /> Federal COVID-19 Response Legislation and Charter Schools"

That’s why Bellwether teamed up with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools on a new resource to help charter school leaders and support organizations understand how recent federal legislation might affect their schools and students. This resource looks at five areas in which the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) and the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) affect public charter schools, including: 

  • New paid sick and family leave requirements that affect charter schools as employers
  • Financial assistance for small- and mid-sized businesses and nonprofits that charter schools may be eligible to access 
  • Provisions that support elementary and secondary schools and state education systems in preventing, preparing for, and responding to effects of the novel coronavirus
  • Non-education funding streams and flexibilities that charter schools and other public schools or education nonprofits may be able to use to cover costs associated with responding the novel coronavirus or better serve children, families, and communities during this public health emergency
  • Provisions related to student loans and the Corporation for National and Community Service that may affect some charter school employees

The “paycheck protection program” loans available to small businesses (including nonprofits and sole proprietorships) through the CARES Act have drawn considerable attention, but most analyses do not address the unique considerations that charter schools must take into account in considering whether or not to pursue these programs. Further, numerous other CARES Act programs and provisions that have gotten less attention can be used to support coronavirus-related costs incurred by education organizations or meet needs of children, families, and communities they serve. For example:  Continue reading

Media: “Question for the Democratic Presidential Hopefuls — Why Are Government-Funded Nonprofits Fine for Pre-K but Not for K-12?” in The 74

Why do Bernie Sanders and some of his primary rivals think it’s good for government to fund community-based, nonprofit organizations to educate two-year-olds but suddenly an enormous problem when children turn five and start kindergarten?

Read my op-ed in The 74.