Hoping to break down bureaucracy, use tax dollars more efficiently, and provide a central resource for parents, Washington state has created a new agency to oversee a variety of programs that serve its young children.
The Washington Department of Early Learning pulls together more than a dozen services, including child-care licensing, a state-financed preschool program, a Head Start collaboration project, and a small early-reading initiative. Those programs are now run by three different state agencies.
“We must prepare Washington children to succeed in a global economy and, with this new department, we are making it clear that education in Washington begins long before kindergarten,” Gov. Christine Gregoire, a Democrat, said in a press release on March 28, the day she signed the bill establishing the department. The agency will begin operating July 1.
Washington state’s early-learning department is part of a growing trend in the states to bring together a variety of programs serving young children and their families under one state agency. States are also finding that it is inefficient to have more than one agency funding different programs that serve the same kids, and that some services are being duplicated.
This movement is also being supported by several private foundations through a project called the Build Initiative. The project was launched in 2002 by the Early Childhood Funders’ Collaborative, a consortium of foundations that have large grant programs in early-childhood education. Among the members are the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the George Gund Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
The goal of the initiative is to re-create the way states are delivering programs for children from birth through age 5. For example, child-care licensing is often handled by a social service department, while preschool programs are sometimes administered by state education agencies.
“Developing an early-learning system, rather than simply expanding an array of program options, is key to achieving success,” according to a 2005 report from the Build Initiative. “A system … requires an effective and seamless set of referrals and follow-up across many fields—health, nutrition, family support, early care and education, early intervention, and preschool services.”
Five states—Illinois, Minnesota, New Jersey, Ohio, and Pennsylvania—have each received a $350,000 grant from the initiative to begin implementing new early-childhood systems. Ongoing funding is also available to them for testing new models of providing services and for improving school-readiness programs.
Four other states, including Washington, are participating in the project as “learning-partner states,” meaning they take part in conference calls and other activities with the five grantee states.
One lesson the Build Initiative has learned is that the movement is not the kind in which states can look at a list of “best practices” and know exactly what to do, said Susan Hibbard, the interim director of the project.
“They each have a very different culture,” she said.
In some states, Ms. Hibbard added, the governor is calling for the change; in others, legislators are leading the way.
The experiences of states that have been through the consolidation process also show that it can be a struggle to reorganize services that have long existed in other departments.
“I think there is still anxiety,” said Ann Reale, the commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care, which was formed last year. “Unless people begin to embrace the philosophy of what we’re trying to do, they revert back to wanting to protect the status quo.”
As in Washington state, Massachusetts’ new department includes programs that were previously administered by social services and the state education department.
The experience of reorganizing, Ms. Reale said, tends to uncover long-standing perceptions that employees have about the services of other agencies.
For example, child care is sometimes viewed just as babysitting by those in the education field, while child-care officials sometimes believe educators only want to push academic expectations and testing onto younger children.
But in reality, Ms. Reale said, child-care providers are “fooling themselves” if the think they don’t need to pay attention to early literacy and other school-readiness skills. And educators, she said, who think they can do their jobs without providing some care “don’t understand anything about child development.”
To address possible turf battles, Pennsylvania formed an office of child development in 2004 that has personnel in both the public-welfare and education departments.
“That was a very creative way to ensure that people weren’t operating in silos,” Ms. Hibbard said.
Resource for Families
In Washington state, some people in the early-childhood field weren’t convinced that setting up a new agency could improve the way services are provided in the state, said Agda Buchard, the executive director of the Washington Association for the Education of Young Children, an affiliate of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, an advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.
“There was some pushback” from people in the field when officials talked about connecting early-childhood, K-12, and higher education, Ms. Buchard said.
By emphasizing that the new agency would serve as a resource for families with young children, policymakers also hoped to address any concerns from parents who were worried that the state was trying to push their toddlers into preschool centers, she said.
“We’ve long been advocating for a state-level department to elevate the status of early learning,” she said.