Race to the Top application thwarted by unfinished programs

December 19, 2011

Illinois lost out on $70 million in Race to the Top money for early childhood programs, largely because key initiatives like a state assessment for kindergartners were planned but were not yet in place.

The decision left early childhood advocates in Illinois scratching their heads, but they pledged to find a way to turn the ideas outlined in the application into reality.

Scoring sheets released by the U.S. Department of Education reveal where Illinois lost major points in its Race to the Top - Early Learning Challenge application.

On Friday, the U.S. Department of Education announced that nine states -- California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington -- would share the $500 million set aside for the early learning challenge.

This is the third time Illinois failed to win Race to the Top money. However, another $200 million in federal competitive grants is coming online. The U.S. Department of Education plans to announce which states will split that cash later this month.

In the early learning challenge application, Illinois also lost points because the state had not yet launched a new preschool and child care rating system, and had not begun efforts to educate child care providers and preschool teachers about new early learning standards. State advocates and officials had move ahead with implementing a quality rating system for child care and preschool providers, rolling out the new early learning standards and creating the kindergarten assessment.

“There was tremendous value in the process, and I think Illinois now has clearly a sense of where we want to go next and what we want to do,” Gieseke says. “There’s been a huge effort, and a very significant strengthening of the collaboration.”

She adds: “On the national scene, we will be working hard to advocate for another opportunity in the coming federal budget, so that they go another round.”

Other areas where the state lost points from reviewers include:

  • A lack of emphasis on parent participation; a lack of specifics on how several family engagement and recruitment initiatives would work; and a lack of depth in the state’s parent engagement standards

  • Recent declines, due to state funding cuts, in the number of children being served in state preschool programs

  • Goals that reviewers felt, in some cases, were not attainable or not specific enough

  • A lack of a plan for expanding the number of spots available in high-quality programs, particularly when state funding for expanding Preschool for All is limited

  • Questions about whether the state would be able to find money to dramatically expand its quality rating system for child care and preschool providers (the application calls for making participation mandatory)

  • Concerns that automatically giving Head Start and Preschool for All programs a four-star quality rating, as planned,  could be unfair or counterproductive (Mayor Rahm Emanuel has endorsed this idea and made it a key part of his early childhood efforts)

  • Criticism from one reviewer that the Community Connections modelwhere children are transported from home child-care programs to preschools, does not have research to support it and could actually be detrimental when “brain research tells us that good practices in early-childhood settings minimize both the number of transitions and the number of caring adults in a child’s life each day.”

  • Problems with the different supports offered to different kinds of programs. Some reviewers found fault with the application’s assertion that home-based child care providers may lack interest in obtaining credentials or implementing a formal curriculum. Several mentioned that training on assessing children and improving teacher-child interactions should be emphasized in all programs, rather than reserved for those at the second-highest quality tier.