City, CPS to roll out new preschool funding process

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Starting in August, the city and CPS will jointly ask for proposals from agencies that want to offer early-childhood programs – part of a new process that could shutter some existing programs and send money instead to programs in needier neighborhoods or to those run by providers with a better track record.

The goal of the new process is to centralize planning for which neighborhoods, community organizations and schools receive preschool funding in the 2013-2014 school year.

Existing city-funded providers, and agencies interested in becoming new providers, will both have to apply through the new process, says Bill McCaffrey, a spokesman for Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s office. “Slots will be allocated based on both quality of proposed services and the need for early childhood services across the city,” he says.

The city will use a number of factors to determine quality, including teachers’ qualifications, the content of the proposed curriculum, strategies for parent engagement, the strength of outreach efforts and whether the agency has a track record of operating good programs, according to McCaffrey.

Beth Mascitti-Miller, chief early childhood officer for CPS, says the city will hold training sessions for early childhood providers once the request for proposals goes live.

Raising questions

The proposal sparked a stern warning from Harriet Meyer, co-chair of the Illinois Early Learning Council. At a June Illinois Early Learning Council, she warned that the process must be transparent and include outside experts.

“If we don’t have a review that is perfect, with outside reviewers, it will go down,” she said. “If it’s going to be internal, and you’re going to make some decisions, you won’t be able to answer the questions from the aldermen and people in the community.”

McCaffrey, promising transparency and input from outside reviewers, says that more details will be available when the request-for-proposals is released in August.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel had previously announced that a quality rating system for preschools would launch this month, but that has not happened yet. The quality ratings were supposed to be part of a revamped state quality rating system.

McCaffrey says that even though Illinois did not win federal dollars to back the effort (through the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grant program), the state is moving forward on the new rating system. “Chicago has pledged to be a leader in getting all of our programs into this new rating and improvement system as quickly as possible,” he wrote in an email.

Jason Sachs, director of early childhood for Boston Public Schools, says that quality improvement efforts are important, but may fall flat without some strategy to close the substantial salary gap between preschool teachers in community organizations and those in public schools.

“You can’t pay someone $30,000 a year and expect them to be comparable to someone who is earning $60,000 or $70,000 a year,” Sachs says.

Re-allocating early childhood resources “where they are most needed” was a key part of Emanuel’s transition plan. So too was a pledge to institute the same assessments and similar curricula across all early childhood programs.

Susan Adams, assistant commissioner for Georgia Pre-K at the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning, says that the state has made an effort to make sure Head Start and state-funded pre-kindergarten meet the same standards – for instance, making sure that both programs are choosing from the same list of approved curricula.

However, those efforts have hit one stumbling block: different requirements for how students are assessed in Head Start and in the state program.

As a result, some Head Start teachers have to do both state-mandated and federally mandated assessments. Other programs have received waivers from the federal government.