early childhood

Mike Pence passed up a big federal preschool grant. Now Indiana could have a second shot

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman

Four years ago, then-Gov. Mike Pence created an uproar when, at the last minute, he nixed Indiana’s chance for up to $80 million in federal dollars to develop the state’s fledgling public prekindergarten program.

But later, as On My Way Pre-K grew, Pence acknowledged that the federal grant could be “a good fit.” And now, Indiana could have another shot at those dollars.

The application for the next round of the federal preschool grant was expected to open Tuesday. Early childhood education advocates, who are pushing again to expand On My Way Pre-K, are watching to see if Indiana’s current governor, Eric Holcomb, will pursue the funds — which could be a key piece of making pre-K more broadly available across the state.

“It’s high time our state caught up with the rest of the nation,” said Ann Murtlow, president and CEO of the United Way of Central Indiana, one of the state’s most influential supporters of early childhood education. “Surely federal grant funding could make a significant impact in providing much-needed high-quality pre-K for low-income 4-year-olds in our state.”

Holcomb, who has been supportive of pre-K expansion, hadn’t decided whether Indiana will apply for the federal grant, a spokeswoman wrote in an email last week. His office was waiting to see the details of the grant’s requirements in the application.

Some of the political fight around the expansion of pre-K in Indiana has died down since Pence took his stand, in part because of the progress of On My Way Pre-K. But Holcomb will likely still have to weigh similar tensions: How much should Indiana invest in pre-K, and how quickly?

The federal Preschool Development Grant could be used to craft Indiana’s game plan for expanding early learning opportunities, by conducting a statewide needs assessment and coordinating existing federal, state, and local programs that serve children from birth to age 5, according to the grant description.

In that way, this version of the grant is significantly different from the one Pence walked away from. In the past, in other states, the grant funded thousands of new and improved pre-K slots or created new programs.

Pence had initially backed out of the federal grant application in 2014, saying he had concerns about “strings” that could come with it. “When it comes to early childhood education, I believe Indiana must develop our own pre-K program for disadvantaged children without federal intrusion,” a statement from his office said at the time.

Two years later, Pence changed his stance, reaching out to federal authorities to ask about the next opening for the grant. Pence said he felt the state had built the supports to further expand the program. He explained that, in pushing for Indiana to launch a public pre-K program, he had promised lawmakers to “not expand the program until we saw evidence that it was working.”

But one expert says the federal grant still could have helped Indiana take steps to improve pre-K quality, particularly with instruction and curriculum, and that the infusion of federal dollars wouldn’t have necessarily forced a fast expansion.

“Indiana really missed out on the initial opportunity to focus on quality, to start small and then put some dollars in place over subsequent years to be able to build on that and expand,” said Laura Bornfreund, director of early and elementary education policy at New America, a think tank.

In the new round of this grant, up to 40 states and territories will receive awards between $500,000 and $10 million to conduct a statewide needs assessment, develop a strategic prekindergarten plan, maximize parental choice, and improve the quality of programs. States have until Oct. 15 to apply, and the funds — almost $250 million in total — would be awarded in mid-December.

On My Way Pre-K, the state’s program for 4-year-olds from low-income families, currently serves about 4,000 children in 20 counties. About three years into the program, state lawmakers roughly doubled the amount of funding for the program to $22 million this year. That doubled the number of students served each year and expanded the program’s reach to more parts of the state.

The city of Indianapolis, with corporate and philanthropic matching dollars, is spending $40 million over five years to fund pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds from low-income families. Indiana also has federal Head Start and Early Head Start programs that last year served about 14,000 children from low-income families, and the federal Child Care and Development Fund program helps nearly 32,000 children receive care.

Advocates say they want to see continued expansion with a focus on quality. Early Learning Indiana, an advocacy organization, estimates that about 160,000 children ages 3 to 5 years old need some type of care because their parents are working. Just a small fraction of all preschool-aged children in Indiana — about 15 percent — are enrolled in high-quality care, the group said.

While Indiana has made strides toward improving early childhood education, parts of the state still lack access to high-quality preschool, said Early Learning Indiana director of public affairs Jeff Harris.

“Indiana has done a nice job of really focusing on quality,” he said. “It’s a matter of growing it strategically and responsibly to make sure we have those high outcomes.”

Correction: August 15, 2018: An earlier version of this story inaccurately stated that the grant application process opened Tuesday. That was the original schedule, but it was then pushed back.

Planning mode

As lawmakers consider major preschool expansion, Colorado providers want more than just extra seats

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

With Gov. Jared Polis’ proposal for the biggest expansion of Colorado’s state-funded preschool program in its 30-year-history, many early childhood educators are cheering the possibility of 8,200 new preschool slots for at-risk children.

But they’re also asking hard questions about how providers will find the staff and space to create new preschool classrooms, and whether state leaders will reshape the program to broaden its reach and intensity. Suggestions from the field include expanding the definition of at-risk, accepting more 3-year-olds, offering more full-day slots, and rewarding top-rated providers with more money.

These discussions echo debates about preschool quality and access nationally as more state leaders prioritize early childhood education, and as public preschool programs from New York to California attempt massive scale-ups.

Research shows that early childhood programs can produce huge long-term gains for children, particularly those from low-income families. But there’s a caveat: The programs must be high-quality.

In Colorado, Polis’ preschool proposal hinges partly on his plan to offer free full-day kindergarten statewide. That’s because 5,000 of the new preschool slots would be funded with money currently earmarked for full-day kindergarten through a special pool of flexible early education dollars. Lawmakers likely won’t make final decisions on the full-day kindergarten and preschool expansion plans until late spring.

In the meantime, preschool providers are weighing the pros and cons.

One of them is Lynne Bridges, who runs a highly rated preschool designed to look like an old schoolhouse in downtown Pagosa Springs in southwest Colorado. It’s called Seeds of Learning and serves children from tuition-paying families and about two-dozen preschoolers who qualify for public dollars through the Colorado Preschool Program.

While Bridges is thrilled with Polis’ support for early childhood education, she’s frustrated, too, that the state’s preschool program doesn’t recognize top programs like hers with extra funding.

“It’s almost like this high-quality program I’ve created …. It’s my burden,” she said.

Bridges’ program holds a respected national accreditation and also has a high rating from the state through its Colorado Shines rating system. She fundraises constantly to fill the gap between her government allotment and the cost of providing preschool for her at-risk kids — the ones she said have the most to gain from a high-quality program.

“There’s only so much money to be had in a rural community,” Bridges said. “This shouldn’t be me laying awake at night trying to help these families.”

The $111 million Colorado Preschool Program serves about 21,000 preschoolers statewide — most of them 4-year-olds in half-day slots — as well as 5,000 kindergarteners in full-day programs. Most of the program’s slots are offered in public school classrooms, though some are in community-based facilities.

On average, providers get about $4,100 per state preschool slot, though the amount varies based on a district’s size, share of low-income students, and cost of living.

Jennifer Okes, chief operating officer at the Colorado Department of Education, said the state’s finance formula allocates preschools half per student of what’s earmarked for first- through 12th-graders.

That formula doesn’t account for preschool quality, she said.

“I guess you could take preschool funding out of [the Public School Finance Act] and fund it separately. That would be a big statutory change.”

A separate state program that provides subsidies to help low-income families pay for child care works the way Bridges wishes the Colorado Preschool Program did, but it’s governed by a different state department and set of rules.

Leaders in the suburban Westminster school district north of Denver, where three-quarters of preschoolers are funded through the Colorado Preschool Program, said Polis’ proposal fits with the district’s own plans to expand early childhood options.

“I’m all for it,” said the district’s Early Childhood Education Director Mat Aubuchon, of the state preschool expansion. “I’m just curious what latitude we’ll get as districts.”

Aubuchon said if the state funds more slots, he hopes more can be merged to create full-day preschool slots. Currently, state rules allow only a small fraction of slots to be combined.

In addition, he wants more leeway in the state’s primary eligibility criteria, which gives preference children from low-income families, those in unstable housing, or who have speech or social difficulties, among other factors.

“I would like to see a little bit more pre-academic stuff in there,” said Aubuchon.

For example, children likely to be at risk for later reading struggles, based on results from a pre-reading assessment, should be given greater consideration, he said.

Aubuchon said if Polis’ plan comes to fruition, he’d like at least 100 to 150 more state preschool slots — maybe more if districts get additional flexibility to make full-day slots. He said the district will likely be able to find space for additional preschool classrooms.

Christy Delorme, owner and director of Mountain Top Child Care in Estes Park in northern Colorado, would like more state preschool slots, too.

She knows some commercial child care centers aren’t happy about Polis’ preschool expansion plan “because it takes away those paying slots,” but said she thinks it’s a good idea.

“Most parents can’t afford child care,” she said. “The more kiddos we can get into early education programs the better off our society will be.”

Delorme doesn’t have the room for a new classroom at Mountain Top, but like Aubuchon, wants the option to create full-day slots for the children she’s already serving. Currently, the 10 children in half-day slots funded by the Colorado Preschool Program rely on scholarships from a local nonprofit to stay at Mountain Top all day. If they become eligible for full-day state slots, that scholarship money could be rerouted to at-risk 3-year-olds,

One challenge that many preschool providers will face if there’s a sudden influx of new state-funded preschool slots will be hiring qualified staff for new classrooms.

That very problem is what led Bridges, of Seeds of Learning in Pagosa Springs, to cut her program down from four classrooms to three a few years ago. Turnover was high and she couldn’t find reliable substitutes.

With the switch to three classrooms, she also raised wages. Today, a lead teacher with a bachelor’s degree makes about $22 an hour, competitive pay in a community where her workers sometimes used to leave for jobs at the local Walmart. Today, Bridges has no problem with turnover.

Delorme, whose teachers start at $15 to $17 an hour, agreed that the field’s low pay makes it tough to find qualified staff.

“Education in general, it’s hard to recruit, but does that mean I wouldn’t want to expand my program because of that?” she said. “No.”

Race for mayor

How to help Chicago’s younger learners? Mayoral frontrunners skip a chance to say.

PHOTO: Stephanie Wang

The challenge of mending and strengthening Chicago’s network of care and education for its youngest residents defies instant solutions, but four candidates for mayor agreed Monday on one point: The city needs to care for its child care centers rather than imposing more burdens on them.

And the city should include those crucial small businesses, which often anchor neighborhoods, in its growing pre-kindergarten system.

Related: Why Rahm Emanuel’s rollout of universal pre-K has preschool providers worried

At a forum Monday at the University of Chicago on the topic of early childhood education, candidates addressed how city government can stitch together a stronger early learning system. Chicago’s mayoral election is Feb. 26.

Chicago is in the first year of a four-year universal pre-kindergarten rollout, and the city’s next mayor will determine much of the fate of the program. About 21,000 children have enrolled out of an estimated 45,000. And cost estimates are now north of $220 million, much of it federal and state money earmarked for early childhood expenditures. But the mayor can direct how that money is spent.

The forum attracted four candidates: former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot, former Chicago schools CEO Paul Vallas, state representative and former teacher La Shawn K. Ford, and John Kozlar, a University of Chicago graduate who, at 30, is the youngest candidate in the race.

Four candidates considered front-runners — Toni Preckwinkle, Susana Mendoza, Bill Daley and Gery Chico — didn’t attend. Nor did six more of the 14 candidates.

All of the mayoral candidates who answered said they would continue to support Chicago’s universal pre-K expansion but did not specify how.

The event was organized by Child Care Advocates United, a statewide alliance of child care providers who banded together four years ago when the state budget crisis was forcing many providers and child care agencies to cut back or close.

The central topic of conversation was how city government can build a stronger early learning system. Several questions revolved around issues faced by for-profit and nonprofit day care owners and preschool operators who are facing teacher shortages, budget pressures, and a churn of students. Some advocates say Chicago’s rollout of universal pre-K has made a operating a difficult business even more tenuous, as they lose children and revenue to Chicago Public Schools.

A Chalkbeat analysis of data published last week showed that public school preschool programs are at 91 percent capacity, while one in five seats at community-run preschools and centers is empty.

The candidates Monday offered different suggestions for alleviating the pressure.

Related: Care about schools? Read Chalkbeat Chicago’s voter guide to the mayor’s race. 

“We have to end this fight between Chicago Public Schools and (community) providers. It is killing an industry,” said Ford, a state legislator who described the budget pressures many providers faced under former governor Bruce Rauner, when Illinois did not pass a budget for more than two years.

A September report from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, which tracks openings and closures among licensed daycare facilities, shows a loss of 3,400 licensed facilities statewide from 2010 to 2018.

“Chicago Public Schools cannot do (preschool) cheaper, and it cannot do it better,” said Vallas, also a former budget director for the city of Chicago, who has put out a detailed prenatal-to-preschool platform that starts with universal prenatal care and a detailed menu of services and supports for children birth to age 5.

“The challenge with the universal pre-K program that Rahm Emanuel and (schools chief) Janice Jackson rolled out is that there was no engagement with community-based providers,” said Lightfoot, who questioned the timing of the May 2018 announcement just weeks before a Chicago Tribune series cast a spotlight on a pattern of mishandling student sexual abuse cases in the K-12 system. “This program was ill-conceived and rolled out in spring to be a distraction to the sex assault investigation about to be unveiled by the Tribune.”

At the forum, held in the auditorium of the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago, Vallas also spoke about creating incentives to entice more prospective teachers into the field, including grow-your-own programs that target parents.

He also described a system of startup grants and opportunity zones that would make it easier for new businesses to take root and tax breaks for providers who serve a variety of children well.

Ford advocated pressuring state legislators to increase reimbursement rates to providers, which could be used to increase teacher pay, and setting aside tax-increment financing, or TIF, dollars for early childhood businesses. And Lightfoot talked about converting some of the schools that Chicago has closed into job training and early childhood centers.

“The policy that has been rolled out is not equitable and not sustainable,” she said of Chicago’s universal pre-K rollout. “We need to work in partnership with our communities.”

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