A new study finds that Maryland and the District of Columbia lead the way when it comes to the efficient administration of federal early-childhood education programs.
The study by the Bipartisan Policy Center, which was released last week, measured how efficiently states were administering and implementing these programs.
“For probably the last 25 years or so, there’s been a perception here in Washington and in Congress that if there was more efficiency with the early-childhood system that there was enough money to fund what needed to be done,” said Linda Smith, who led the project and serves as the director of the center’s early-childhood initiative.
Smith notes the center, a nonprofit that looks for bipartisan solutions to problems in areas such as education, the economy, and governance, didn’t buy the argument that there was enough money in the system, but knew progress would never be made until “you can deal with the perception issue of inefficiency and duplication.”
The researchers set out to determine if there were inefficiencies and, if so, where. They used the Government Accountability Office’s 2017 report on the issue, which examined the nine main federal funding streams of early-care and education programs, to follow the money from Congress, to agencies, and finally the states.
They started by looking at the legislation that provided funding for these programs in an effort to see what, if any, restrictions lawmakers placed on the money. Then they checked to see if federal agencies were limiting state’s choices and examined just how states were administering the programs supported by these funds.
They found that a big part of the problem lies outside of Washington. Of the nine funding streams, Congress only directs states where to put one of them. And, federal agencies don’t place restrictions on where the money goes either.
Smith says they had to show ways for states to be as efficient as possible in order to build a case for more funding.
“What we’re trying to say with this report is yes, there are inefficiencies to be found in the system, but that said, there’s still not enough money,” said Smith.
So what sets certain states apart from the rest when it comes to efficiently using the federal money provided?
Smith says the main thing is the number of agencies a state uses to administer early-care and education programs.
Two states in the bottom 10—Texas and New York—each use five different agencies to handle this work, while the most-efficient states such as North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Montana use only two.
Smith stresses that these situations have a direct impact on families that need these services. She cited the case of a New York mother who was arrested and had her 1-year-old son torn from her arms after a dispute arose over where she was allowed to sit while waiting to talk to someone about benefits.
“It’s only an example of what we’ve been trying to say to people,” said Smith. “These things matter to families because families who are essentially working at minimum-wage jobs, hourly-wage, they have to give up wages to go get child care, to get other services for their children. All these things are scattered around a city or a town, and families are just confused ... about what’s out there and then challenged to make it all fit.”
The report makes several recommendations of things that states can do to make this process more efficient.
One of them calls on governors to get some outside help.
“Governors have the ability to manage this better,” said Smith. “We don’t think that many governors even know they have that authority. In some cases the bureaucracy has become so entrenched, the bureaucracy can’t look at itself so what we’re saying to governors is, ‘We need you to have somebody from outside the system look at this and advise you on what makes sense in your state.’”
The report also recommends that governors improve data collection so there is more information available to them about how many children are served and exactly how these systems are working in their states.
It also has a few suggestions for Congress and the federal agencies that administer these programs.
Congress is encouraged to create what Smith calls a “birth-to-5 continuum for early-childhood programs.” She notes that Early Head Start and Head Start are two separate programs with two separation applications processes, and the requirements for many of these federal early-childhood programs vary quite a bit creating confusion for families.
“We’re not suggesting that they need to be the same, but can they give flexibility so that a child, for example, in Head Start once qualified stays there and doesn’t have to reapply at age 3,” said Smith.
The report also calls for more alignment between the federal agencies that administer these programs through the reinstatement of the Federal Early Learning Interagency Policy Board in the hope that this would lead to more cooperation and greater efficiency.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.