Tensions Surface as States Queue Up for Early-Ed. Grants

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Although a majority of states put in for a share of the $250 million the U.S. Department of Education has allotted for a grant competition to expand preschool, even so popular a program could not escape some partisanship.

Some high-profile GOP governors—in Indiana, Louisiana, and Wisconsin—either didn't apply for the federal money or threatened not to do so. And Democratic politicians who support the Preschool Development Grant program have, in some cases, used that as a way to criticize political opponents.

In all, eight states and Puerto Rico are competing for a share of the $80 million in grants that are allotted for states that are just launching preschool programs. An additional 27 states are seeking a share of $160 million for "expansion" of already-existing programs. The remaining $10 million will be used for technical assistance and program monitoring.

The number of applicants matched a prediction that U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan made in San Francisco last month, at an event to drum up support for the administration's early-learning initiatives.

"I think we're going to get in something like 35 or 36 states applying, which I think is amazing," Mr. Duncan said. "Realistically, we'll probably fund six, eight, nine, something like that. That's the challenge. There's always so much more demand, and there'll be so many more great states that we want to fund than we're going to have dollars available. So we'll go as far as we can down the funding slate, but again, as a nation, this has to become a greater priority."

Political Battles

But the grant offer got a particularly rocky reception in a few states.

Seeking a Share of $250 Million

States are competing for a share of $250 million in federal Preschool Development Grant money from the U.S. Department of Education.

The friction started with Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana—a Republican not up for re-election but widely considered a likely 2016 presidential contender—who fired off letters early this month to the Education Department and to his state education chief, John White, asking for assurances that the state would not be required to use the money to promote the Common Core State Standards. Mr. Jindal, an early common-core supporter, has reversed course. He filed a lawsuit in August against the Obama administration, calling the standards a federal overreach.

Mr. Jindal said in an Oct. 11 letter that Louisiana's early-learning standards appear to be connected to the common core, prompting Mr. White to respond in an Oct. 12 missive that, "The early-learning standards equip children with skills like how to hold a pencil, how to identify a color, and how to be polite. Children equipped with these skills will be prepared for any kindergarten using any standard." The governor's office eventually agreed to sign the application.

Indiana was among the states that had signaled an intent to apply for the funds, a step that's not a prerequisite for grant programs, but offers the Education Department a clue about the popularity of a given program. However, with the application complete and ready to be transmitted, Republican Gov. Mike Pence, who has supported a state-funded preschool pilot program, said he would not move forward. Instead, the state should focus on its own preschool pilot program just starting in five counties, he said.

His change in position brought a stinging public rebuke from Glenda Ritz, the state's elected superintendent of public instruction. "Gov. Pence's about-face with little or no notice to those who had worked in concert with his administration on the grant application is bad for our state and our children," she said, in a statement carried in the Indianapolis Star.

Capacity Concerns

Wisconsin did not indicate any intent to apply for the funds, and state Democrats used that to criticize Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican. Wisconsin has accepted federal funding for early education before; the state applied for Early Learning Challenge grant funds and was awarded $34 million in 2013.

Opponents of Gov. Walker said that the failure to apply for the new funds showed a general neglect of federal funding opportunities. "Playing political games with these federal grant opportunities, while neglecting our infrastructure, ignoring our most vulnerable citizens, and running up a projected $1.9 billion deficit is inexcusable," said U.S. Rep. Mark Pocan, a Democrat from Wisconsin.

However, Laurel Patrick, a spokeswoman for the governor, said that Mr. Walker deferred to the state education department and department of children and families regarding the grant. But Tom McCarthy, a spokesman for the state Department of Public Instruction, said the agency did not advise the governor to forgo the grant.

The election-year timing of the grant may have played a role in the wrangling in some cases, but governors may have also been facing some specific state political issues, said Sara Mead, an early childhood policy analyst with Bellwether Education Partners in Washington. For example, in Indiana, Mr. Pence had proposed a larger preschool program, but had to overcome opposition in his own party to get the smaller program now underway.

Ms. Mead also said that the Preschool Development Grant has a specific focus on increasing the number of children enrolled in preschool, in contrast to the Early Learning Challenge grants, which can be spent on infrastructure. "This is supposed to support slots," she said—and lawmakers could have legitimate concerns about sustaining the costs of those preschool spaces once the federal funding goes away.

State Interest

But many states stepped up to seek the funds, including Montana. The state is eligible for up to $10 million in federal funds. Separately, Gov. Steve Bullock, a Democrat, released a proposal this month to invest $37 million in universal preschool starting in the 2015-16 school year.

Denise Juneau, the Montana superintendent of public instruction, said the money would help serve students in 16 high-need communities. The state has already created early-learning standards and an early-education endorsement for teachers in preparation for expanded early-education offerings. "The governor has made a priority of early-childhood education, and this will be a nice complement to that," Ms. Juneau said.

Related Blog

Georgia, which enrolls 58 percent of its 4-year-olds in its state-funded universal preschool, also applied for the preschool development grants. It already has a plan to use the funding to create Georgia's "Pre-K Plus," which would increase the number of slots for children from low-income families in five regions.

"For more than 20 years, Georgia has been committed to a universal program built on a private-public model that serves 4-year-olds in every county, regardless of family income," said Amy M. Jacobs, the interim commissioner of the Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning, in a statement. "We decided to apply for this grant once we felt confident it would have no impact on this successful model."

Vol. 34, Issue 11, Pages 17, 20

Published in Print: November 5, 2014, as Early-Education Grants Draw Bids From States, Some Partisan Friction
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