Earlier today, FFYF participated in a public forum hosted by the U.S. Department of Education about the structure of the Early Learning Challenge in FY12. FFYF firmly believes that the Early Learning Challenge must remain a competition for states, and Director of Policy and Government Relations Shiek Pal was on hand to deliver the following remarks reiterating our position. We look forward to keeping you updated on new ELC developments as they unfold.
Good afternoon. My name is Shiek Pal, and I am the Director of Policy & Government Relations for the First Five Years Fund. FFYF is committed to a smarter, stronger, healthier, and more productive America, and we believe that high-quality early childhood education for disadvantaged children is our best strategy for getting there. We appreciate the Department’s commitment to high-quality early childhood education and are grateful for the opportunity to testify today.
From the days when Senator Obama was running for president and included the Early Learning Challenge Fund proposal as part of his campaign platform, the First Five Years Fund has been highly supportive of this innovative approach to statewide efforts to improve the lives of at-risk children and their families. As Secretary Duncan said last May when announcing the funding for the competition, “The Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge encourages states to develop bold and comprehensive plans for raising the quality of early learning programs across America.” Soon after the Early Learning Challenge was first announced, FFYF teamed up with BULID to form a partnership—the Early Learning Challenge Collaborative—that supports all states; not only in applying for the first round of funding, but in keeping up momentum over the long-term for vital system-building work. I appreciate this opportunity to reiterate FFYF’s support for a dedicated early learning funding stream and to discuss why converting the Early Learning Challenge to a local grant competition is not the way to create meaningful improvements in the quality of early education and child care.
Early learning has distinct issues and challenges that differ from the challenges in K-12 reform. In most of the country, the early learning “system” is not a real system at all. Funding comes from Head Start, CCDBG, IDEA, TANF, and other state and local sources, but does not necessarily go to the same receiving organization like a school district. States administer $11 billion in child care funding. Head Start is handed down to local organizations that may—or may not—be affiliated with the local school district. Some school districts do provide state-funded preschool, and some provide early learning through Title I or other discretionary funds, but in most communities, districts are not the primary provider of early learning.
So, the key question that the ELC attempts to answer is how do we take a highly fragmented set of programs and funding sources and tie them together in a way that improves quality and child outcomes. The heart of the 2011 ELC grant application was a requirement that states design and implement a common, statewide tiered quality rating and improvement system and outline a plan that brings together resources and policies across multiple funding agencies. In contrast, providing local school districts the funds to create their own early learning standards, data systems, professional development plans, and so forth contributes to fragmentation rather than reducing it.
In the first round of the Challenge the Department received 37 applications from states with over $2 billion in funding requests. That shows that the demand for the program at the state level is high. If we have learned anything from these applications, it is that we have meaningful and significant work to do in building systems that support and promote quality in early childhood education. In all but a handful of the very most advanced states, Early Learning Challenge funds are being used to put in place essential elements that will assure quality in systems and services to high needs children. A fundamental shift in focus from the state level to school districts could be harmful to this effort over both the short and the long run.
This is not to say that there isn’t an important role to play for local school districts. Indeed, superintendents are increasingly including early learning initiatives as part of their K-12 reform proposals. However, it is more cost effective to have a state framework in place first so that school districts can work within a bigger picture that includes ALL early learning and child care. Stronger state infrastructure will make it much easier for the most advanced districts to make even more ambitious plans, and it will help those districts that have fallen behind to catch up.
Thank you for providing this opportunity to share the perspective of the First Five Years Fund. I’d be happy to answer any questions you may have.