Early Childhood Opinion

But I Am Still Thirsty

By Sara Mead — October 21, 2011 3 min read
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The Education Department reports that 35 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, have submitted applications for the Early Learning Challenge Race to the Top program. The inclusion of California and Florida (which required special legislative action to be eligible), two big states that didn’t submit letters of intent to apply in July, is an interesting development. My guess is that California has no shot due to budget and data system issues, but Florida may be more competitive that some folks think.

Another interesting development is the state of Tennessee’s decision not to apply. Tennessee was generally regarded as a front-runner for this competition, in part because it already has a very strong statewide quality rating and improvement system (QRIS) closely integrated into its child care licensure system, and other key systems components. But, in fact, that may be part of why Tennessee decided not to apply. Commissioner Kevin Huffman told the Memphis Commercial Appeal that the ELC requirements don’t meet Tennessee’s needs, in part because the state already has in place many of the things ELC would give states money to do, but also because the money couldn’t be used to expand pre-k slots--which is more the state’s priority than ELC’s form of systems-building. Huffman also cited concerns about sustainability.

The two latter concerns point to broader issues with ELC. The first is the administration’s decision in ELC to prioritize systems-building over pre-k expansion. That’s a break with the direction of a lot of early childhood policy over the past decade, and is really worth debating. While there is evidence that high-quality pre-k investments (including Tennessee’s state pre-k program) produce improved outcomes for kids, there’s very little evidence on the impact of things like QRIS on child outcomes or program quality. And there are legitimate differences of opinion in the field on whether policy should focus on pre-k for 3- and 4-year-olds or improving childcare quality across the 0-5 spectrum. Second, the sustainability issues Huffman raises are real--and I’m guessing a number of states that win the competition may find themselves down the road a few years wishing they’d taken Tennessee’s path here.

In any case, Huffman and Tennessee deserve credit for sticking too their guns here: It’s hard to turn down money, not to mention the potential for a win that would have been another feather in the state’s and Huffman’s cap, and the decision received political pushback in the state.

UPDATE: Sean Cavanaugh notes that Louisiana is another likely ELC front-runner state that has opted to stay out, again citing concerns about sustainability. And check out the quotes from Louisiana Gov. Jindal’s spokesperson Kyle Plotkin, who called ELC the “exact opposite approach our state should take to help our kids,” and said that the program would add more micromanagement & regulation and less flexibility for early childhood programs.

I think that Plotkin’s complaints are a little bit overstated: ELC is intended to encourage states to “streamline the governance structure, funding streams, and quality standards in our early childhood system,” as Plotkin claims the state wants to do. But it remains the case that a big part of the reason those systems remain fragmented lies not in state policy but in federal policies related to Head Start and subsidized child care--which are not changing even as the feds ask states to improve coordination--and that it is entirely possible that the QRIS systems the feds are asking states to put in place overemphasize specific inputs and environmental features in ways that could be both expensive and inflexible for programs.

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.