The first round of states selected to win an Early Learning Challenge grant hasn’t even been announced, but that hasn’t stopped prognostications that the initiative won’t have any significant impact on early learning policy. Critics say that the application period was too short, that the competition places too many bets on Quality Rating and Improvement Systems, or that President Obama hasn’t trumpeted it with nearly enough gusto.
The critics have their points, but the bottom line is that the Early Learning Challenge is a major step forward at a critical time for the field. States report that already the process has prompted them to make significant progress. Some have even made major changes. And there’s something to be said for the fact that, despite crazy timelines and enormously complex work, there’s strong and bipartisan demand for this kind of support in states, enough to generate 37 total applications, including 17 from Republican-led states and 18 from Democratic-led ones. (Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia also applied.)
Let’s get into the meat of some folks' beef with the Challenge. Some question the timing of the application period. Yes, the power of the earlier, K12-focused rounds of Race to the Top was that there was enough front-end lead time for states to enact legislation and significant policy change to position themselves well for the competition. In earlier rounds, states had 25 weeks to apply. With the Challenge, they had eight.
We agree that it would have been better had the application period had been longer to allow state legislatures more of a chance to act in support of applications. But even with a compressed timeline, the Challenge already has prompted states to articulate plans for dramatic change, and chart ambitious courses that could lead to legislative change in the years ahead. Many states initiated major regulatory changes as part of the application process. Some have stated intentions to continue working on certain parts of their plans regardless of whether they’re selected later this month to receive federal resources to do so.
It’s important to remember that the short timeline was the result of Congress placing the Challenge on a fast track. The alternative rollout would have looked like this: $0. It was exciting that there was any money at all for early learning systems-building this year; many advocates had essentially given up hope until reauthorization of ESEA, likely years down the road. But the Challenge got slipped unexpectedly into Race to the Top appropriations for Fiscal Year 2011, which meant that, by law, the money had to be obligated by the end of the same calendar year. Ideal? No way. Would 25 weeks have been preferable to leverage greater front-end change? You bet. But, yes, given the choice between $500 million for early learning obligated before year’s end and the greater likelihood of nothing for years, we welcomed the investment.
It's also worth remembering that many of the most significant changes in Race to the Top were to support applications in the second round – and if Congress authorizes a second round of the Early Learning Challenge on a timeline that allows for state legislative action, we feel confident states will rise to the occasion.
We're also more optimistic about the substance of the grant. It is certainly true that state quality rating systems for early learning haven't been well aligned to child outcomes. But many states – including, hopefully, the winning states – are redesigning QRIS for that very reason. The next generation of QRIS will be aligned to child outcomes, and the Challenge will be a major reason for it. We agree that simply adding programs to existing QRIS won't always lead to improved outcomes, but we know states are committed to redesigning QRIS in ways that raise the floor for all programs – and don't set a ceiling on the best ones. In fact, the Challenge requires states to evaluate their QRIS to see how they can be made better, and we think the winning states will be the ones that committed to improving their QRIS on an ongoing basis, starting now.
While the Early Learning Challenge hasn’t received the kind of national coverage that Race to the Top has received, there have been a good number of articles written in states around the country, and we hope that the imminent announcement of winners will bring even more attention to this exciting initiative. (Though as a former journalist, I’d suggest the reason for lack of attention has more to do with the dearth of journalists who know much about, are assigned to or even care about early education, not just that the Administration hasn’t done its part to serve it up to them.) We think that it would be great for President Obama to talk more about the importance and impact of early learning. We (and many other advocacy groups, no doubt) stand ready to provide about 100 ideas and opportunities for how to do that, if he needs the help. But we also are grateful for what his administration has done in partnership with Congressional champions, and we look forward to him using the Challenge as a jumping off point to showcase many important changes ahead.
We love perfection, too, but we’ll happily live with imperfection and a little bit of sausage-making rather than be perfectly disappointed when nothing improves.
This post was written in response to Sara Mead's piece, "Obama’s Education Legacy For America’s Youngest Kids: Too Little, Too Late," in the New Republic.