Special Report
Early Childhood

Integrating Early Education Into State ESSA Plans

By Christina A. Samuels — December 30, 2016 3 min read
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States are looking for ways to weave early-learning goals, funding strategies, and ways to support local districts’ preschool efforts into the school accountability plans they’ll be submitting to the U.S. Department of Education this year under the Every Student Succeeds Act.

“Since ESSA is all about reducing achievement gaps, it is just logical to focus on early learning,” said Lori Connors-Tadros, the senior project director of the Center on Enhancing Early Learning Outcomes, which is financed by the Education Department and works to support states as they prepare their ESSA plans and seek to take advantage of new funding opportunities under the law.

The year-old federal K-12 law, the successor to the No Child Left Behind Act, gives states new authority—and opens the door to a new pot of funding, if Congress goes along—in several significant areas of early education.

Under the law, Title I programs that operate schoolwide, meaning those where the proportion of disadvantaged students is so high that Title I money aimed at those students can be used for all students at the school, are encouraged to create transition programs for children entering kindergarten.

Districts also are required to coordinate with Head Start, the federally funded preschool program, and with child-care programs paid for through Child Care and Development Block Grant aid. State report cards must also include data on preschool enrollment.

And ESSA created a $250 million program jointly managed between the Education Department and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to help states expand or start preschool programs. Those grants are dependent on funding being appropriated in the new Congress.

Seizing the Momentum

Several states have made noteworthy strides in infusing early-childhood education into their draft ESSA plans, said Connors-Tadros.

For example, there is New Hampshire’s Early Childhood Advisory Team, a group that was formed to advise the state education department as it develops its iprovement plan. In Alabama, Jeana Ross, the secretary of the state’s department of early childhood, is the chairwoman of the state ESSA committee. Minnesota held a statewide listening tour to gather information on early learning to include in its plan.

Washington state, meanwhile, has a work group specifically tasked with focusing on early-childhood education in the state’s plan. According to its detailed plan, released for public comment, Washington is considering using Title III funds under ESSA, which are earmarked to support English-language learners, to create early-learning proficiency standards, a screening test, and an assessment for prekindergarten pupils. The plan also calls for the state to help school districts expand high-quality prekindergarten, including by providing information on model programs and blending different funding sources.

For its part, the federal Education Department released in October nonregulatory guidance for states on how to make the most of opportunities for young learners using Title I money aimed at disadvantaged students.

The guidance cited examples such as a partnership between a dual-language Head Start program in San Francisco and the San Francisco school district that ensures curriculum alignment and joint professional development for district and Head Start teachers. The guidance also noted that the Montgomery County, Md., district has used Title I aid to expand Head Start from part-time to full-time, and to provide summer learning opportunities for children.

“The new education law brings with it a fresh vision for how we may address the education gaps that continue to persist, especially for our most vulnerable children,” the federal guidance said.

Though the 2017 deadline for the state improvement plans is fast approaching, Connors-Tadros said that state leaders should not feel that the planning document is the only opportunity they’ll have to support early-childhood education under ESSA.

“We want to be sure that goals around early childhood are in a state’s education priorities, and then they are aligned and integrated into their ESSA state plans,” she said. And through subsequent guidance and support, she pointed out, “states have many opportunities to influence what happens.”

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