April 28, 2020

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


April 22, 2020

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


April 17, 2020

Evaluators Bring Superpowers to Your Federal Grant Application

Yesterday, my colleague Lina Bankert wrote about three new federal grant competitions that have just been posted. Those who are new to federal grant competitions may find the evaluation requirements and research-design options (explained below) overwhelming. Federal grant applications typically require:

  • An evidence-based rationale for the proposed project’s approach, such as a logic model
  • Citations of prior research that support key components of a project’s design and meet specific thresholds for rigor specified by the What Works Clearinghouse
  • Expected outcomes and how applicants will measure those with valid and reliable instruments
  • Explanation of how the proposed project will be studied to understand its impact

Proposals may be scored by two kinds of individuals: reviewers with programmatic expertise and reviewers with evaluation expertise. Sections of the grant are allocated a certain number of points, all of which total to a final score that drives which proposals receive awards. The evaluation section of these proposals can represent up to 25% of the total points awarded to applicants, so having a strong one can make or break an application. 

red letters that say "KAPOW" coming out of a blue and yellow comic-style explosion

Image by Andrew Martin from Pixabay

Writing these sections requires a sophisticated understanding of research methodology and analytical techniques in order to tie the application together with a consistent and compelling evidence base. Our evaluation team at Bellwether has partnered with a number of organizations to help them design programmatic logic models, shore up their evidence base, and write evaluation plans that have contributed to winning applications to the tune of about $60 million. This includes three recent partnerships with Chicago International Charter School, Citizens of the World Charter Schools, and Grimmway Schools — all winners in the latest round of Charter School Program (CSP) funding for replication and expansion of successful charter networks.

Continue reading


April 16, 2020

Applications Open for 3 Federal Grants: Tips From Bellwether

In the past few days, three major education-related federal grants have opened their application processes.

The Supporting Effective Educator Development (SEED) Grant Program, the Teacher and School Leader (TSL) Incentive Grants, and the Education Innovation and Research (EIR) Fund collectively offer approximately $266 million in funding to eligible education entities. (All three currently list a June 2020 application deadline.)

Teachers at Skyline High School meet with community partners to plan work-based learning opportunities for students.

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action

These programs closely align with Bellwether’s mission of supporting underserved students: 

  • SEED: “Increase the number of highly effective educators by supporting […] practices that prepare, develop, or enhance the skills of educators”
  • TSL: “Develop, implement, improve, or expand comprehensive Performance-Based Compensation Systems or Human Capital Management Systems for teachers, principals, and other school leaders […] especially [those] who […] close the achievement gap between high- and low-performing students”
  • EIR: “Create, develop, implement, replicate, or take to scale entrepreneurial, evidence-based, field-initiated innovations to improve student achievement and attainment for high-need students; and rigorously evaluate such innovations”

While these grants require complex applications and can be highly competitive, Bellwether is here to help. Since 2010, we have successfully partnered with many organizations in their successful bids for federal grants. These include the following organizations, some of which have won several times with our support: Harmony Public Schools, IDEA Public Schools, Louisiana Department of Education, National Math and Science Initiative, New Schools for New Orleans, RePublic Schools, Rhode Island Department of Education, and Tennessee Department of Education.

Back in 2016, I shared a series of tips on writing a successful federal education grant application, so we’re re-upping that conversation today.

But first, a few 2020 additions to our 2016 thoughts:

First, it is worth naming that we are navigating through highly uncertain times precipitated by the COVID-19 crisis. Leaders across the sector are urgently attending to foundational needs and may see a grant application as yet another item on top of an already packed to-do list. We empathize — and also believe that now is an opportune moment for organizations to think ahead and consider how to evolve to address changing needs, either by accelerating existing work or by pursuing a bold new innovation.

Second, don’t feel like you have to go it alone. Many strong grant proposals are developed in partnership. We encourage organizations to have conversations early on with potential partners who can bring particular expertise or serve as a “test lab” for an initiative. (My colleague Allison Crean Davis will write a companion post tomorrow about the evaluation capabilities needed for a winning grant — and how we can support on that front.)

Finally, even if your application does not rise to the top, consider yourself a winner. Grant development can help you get clarity on where you’re headed and highlight gaps that you need to close before taking on a big new initiative. Going through the process of identifying strengths and opportunities can be just as valuable as actually acing the competition. Continue reading


April 15, 2020

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