State scales back on early childhood

October 26, 2012

In its second bid for early childhood funding under the Race to the Top competition, Illinois is scaling back its plans.

Illinois lost its first bid for $70 million in the federal grant competition and is applying again in a special second round for runners-up, but is only eligible for up to $35 million this time around.

The new application is being submitted today, and the decreased resources are evident.

For one, part of the grant that offers extra support to improve quality, and screen and enroll more children in high-need communities, has been cut in half.

Only six to eight high-need communities will get extra support under the state’s plan, down from 15 in the original proposal.

The targeted communities will get discretionary funding to meet specific local needs—such as money for child care providers to gain state certification or bilingual endorsements--coaching to improve teaching, and support for outreach to the most high-need students.

The state also has set less ambitious goals for how many children to enroll in preschool and birth-to-3 programs.

Illinois apparently has a good chance of getting the funding. The second round is less a competition than a negotiation with the states that were runners-up over what parts of their original plans states can implement with decreased federal funding, said Julie Smith, deputy chief of staff for Gov. Pat Quinn, at an Oct. 22 Illinois Early Learning Council meeting.

Quality over quantity

The infusion of federal funds comes at a time when funding for the overall number of state early childhood slots is at low ebb.

This fall, state preschool enrollment is down to just over 73,000 students, from a high of over 95,000 students in fiscal year 2009. In its grant application, the proportion of low-income 4-year-olds whom the state hopes to enroll in high-quality preschool programs has been reduced to 65 percent, and the state now aims to provide five years of early childhood services to just 10 percent of students.

Even so, the application emphasizes efforts to improve quality. Similar to plans outlined in its first Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge application, the state will revamp its Quality Rating and Improvement System and make participation mandatory for child care and preschool programs. But this time around, it has eliminated a controversial provision that required licensing of small family child care homes that care for two or three children.

Programs that are only licensed will automatically be at the lowest quality level. Programs can reach the second level by verifying that staff and leaders have received a certain amount of training. The third level will require programs to rate their own quality, but state contractors will spot-check programs to ensure accuracy.

The fourth level—the minimum to be considered “good quality”—will require evidence of classroom observations that show quality.

Preschool for All, Head Start, and accredited child care programs will not automatically be given a fourth-level rating, though compliance with specific regulations will count toward meeting some of the quality requirements.

Criteria for reaching the fifth level of the program haven’t been defined yet.

Grant funds will be used to hire 16 “quality specialists” who will work with child care and preschool programs. The state will study whether quality ratings correspond to different outcomes for students, and also is planning a public awareness campaign to increase parent demand for highly rated programs.

And the changes will be a long way off. “Very little of it really starts to happen until July of next year,” said Theresa Hawley, senior advisor in the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development, at the council meeting. “This represents a less than 1 percent increase in what we are spending on early childhood care and education in the state.”