Who’s Getting the New Preschool Development Grants Announced Today? And 5 Things to Keep an Eye On

This morning, at a White House summit on early childhood education, the Obama administration is announcing grants to 18 states in the Preschool Development Grants program, a $250 million grant program, created in the FY2014 appropriations legislation, that provides competitive funding to states to expand access or improve quality in preschool programs.  The Department of Health and Human Services is also announcing 234 preliminary awards, worth $500 million, to expand services to poor infants and toddlers through Early Head Start expansion and Head Start-childcare partnership grants.  The President and a coalition of funders also announced $330 million in new philanthropic and private funding commitments to support early childhood education initiatives, as well as the launch of a new organization, Invest in US, dedicated to building public awareness of the importance of early childhood and supporting community efforts to expand access to quality early learning.

In addition to the funding announcement, Secretaries Duncan and Burwell are releasing a joint policy statement on reducing and eliminating expulsion and suspension in early childhood programs, and the White House Council of Economic Advisers is releasing a report synthesizing the economic research on pre-k effectiveness and the economic impact of early childhood programs.

States receiving Preschool Development Grants include:

Development Grants (for states with small or no pre-k programs):

  • Alabama
  • Arizona
  • Hawai’i
  • Montana
  • Nevada

Expansion Grants (for states with existing pre-k programs and/or previous RTT-ELC grant recipients):

  • Arkansas
  • Connecticut
  • Illinois
  • Louisiana
  • Maine
  • Maryland
  • Massachusetts
  • New Jersey
  • New York
  • Rhode Island
  • Tennessee
  • Vermont
  • Virginia

I haven’t had a chance to review the plans from all of these states yet, but my colleague Ashley Mitchel will be posting further analysis of these states’ plans in the coming weeks.

A few quick thoughts and questions:

Less competitive? Exactly half of the Preschool Development Grant applicants received grants (35 states and Puerto Rico applied), making this competition somewhat less competitive than other RTT competitions (in contrast, 9 states received awards from a similar pool of applicants in the first round of RTT-Early Learning Challenge).  On the positive side, more states means more examples of state experimentation to learn from in the coming years. On the more cynical side, more state winners increases the political base of support.

Expansion vs. quality improvement? The quality requirements in the Preschool Development Grants were written to both to expand access and drive improvements in the quality of state preschool programs. At a cursory glance, it appears that most of the Expansion grants went to states that already had relatively higher program quality and funding levels; states with very large programs with lower quality standards and less funding, such as Georgia and Texas, did not receive grants (Florida did not apply). Where Expansion grantees’ current programs do not meet many of the Preschool Development Grant quality standards—or, as in several states, where there are different standards for school- and community-based programs—in it will be interesting to see the extent to which this program is driving broader quality improvement, vs. creating a separate standard of quality for state- and federally funded slots. Best-case scenario, these states use the opportunity to improve the overall quality of their programs and/or set a more common quality standard for school- and community-based programs. Worst-case scenario, they create a new tier of preschool programs subject to separate standards within already fragmented systems–which appears to be happening in at least one state.

Are Head Start-childcare partnerships the bigger story here? While the Preschool Development Grants and public awareness efforts are likely to get the bulk of media and public attention (a story of 18 state winners with clear state winners and losers is easier to tell than a story about 234 “preliminary” awards) the Head Start-childcare partnerships may actually have greater long-term impact. First of all, this initiative involves twice as much funding as the Preschool Development Grants. Second, this is an expansion of a truly innovative approach to using new federal money to leverage quality improvement in programs supported with childcare subsidies. Childcare subsidies are funded largely with federal funds but administered through states (which also contribute funding)—and we know that on average the subsidy levels for infants and toddlers fall short what’s needed to provide quality care. This program seeks to address that problem by combining existing childcare funds and providers with new Head Start dollars. Third, because this funding is baked into the overall Head Start appropriation, and because grants are going to every state in the country, it will be less politically challenging to sustain over time than Preschool Development Grants, which are at present a separate, new pot of money closely associated with the Obama administration. Like any innovative model, the initial Head Start—childcare partnerships have surfaced challenges that will need to be worked out over time. In particular, seeking to implement Head Start in childcare settings brings into particularly stark relief some of the challenges posed by Head Start’s more burdensome bureaucratic requirements—increasing the urgency for revising the Head Start Performance Standards.

What’s the role for Philanthropic Funding? It’s wonderful that philanthropic funders are committing to invest in early childhood education, and many of the philanthropic initiatives being announced today have real potential to improve quality in preschool programs. That said, it’s important to be realistic about the role of philanthropic funding in early childhood education. The pool of philanthropic funding for preschool is much smaller than existing public funding for early childhood. Further, many philanthropic funders do not want to make long-term commitments to funding slots—they want to see the programs they invest in become sustainable with other sources over time. Ultimately, driving long-term improvement in access to quality early learning will require increased public investment provide adequate funding for an adequate supply of slots. This, in turn, will allow philanthropic funders to make high-impact quality investments—in teacher training, PD, coaching, and other quality initiatives—that leverage the impact of public funding for slots.

How will this impact ESEA? There’s increasing talk of an ESEA reauthorization effort in Congress this Spring. How will these grants, and the administration’s renewed push on early childhood education, impact that effort? Right now, the Preschool Development Grants program is a one-time appropriation. The clearest long-term path to sustaining a major new federal preschool investment is by embedding federal preschool funding in a reauthorized ESEA. But if the Obama administration or Congressional Democrats make this a priority for ESEA reauthorization, that will make getting to agreement on reauthorization even more politically challenging.

The funding and initiatives announced today will benefit many children, and that’s something to celebrate—as is the increased momentum for preschool at the federal, gubernatorial, and philanthropic and community level.

That said, today’s announcements also serve to underscore how far we are from where we need to be on early childhood education. The White House estimates that these funds will expand services to reach some 63,000 additional children—out of a population of about 8 million 3- and 4-year-olds, and 20 million young children under age 5, nationally. Existing Head Start and state pre-k programs serve about 2.2 million of those children, but many of those programs fall short of the administration’s quality standards—and grants released today will improve quality in only a fraction of those slots. And these numbers suggest that at least 1.5 million low-income 3- and 4-year-olds  nationally lack access to state-funded pre-k or Head Start. And that’s not even touching on the much greater unmet needs for infants and toddlers.

I hope that today’s White House Summit ends with folks rolling up their sleeves—because we’ve got a lot of work to do.