Friday, July 22, 2011


By John Fensterwald - Educated Guess |

7/21/11 • California is not among the 36 states and District of Columbia that Education Week reports have expressed an intention to apply for the federal government’s $500 million Race to the Top early education grant competition later this year. But that doesn’t mean the state won’t decide to apply, State Board of Education President Michael Kirst says. Behind the scenes, children’s advocacy groups like Children Now and Preschool California are certainly encouraging it to.

State officials will wait until the grant regulations are out this summer before deciding. California would be wary of having to make any long-term financial commitments in exchange for one-time money, Kirst and State Board of Education Executive Director Sue Burr indicated.

Burr expressed that concern in a letter this month (follows) to Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. “We simply cannot afford to make policy changes or put in place program expansions that will create ongoing costs and cost pressures that cannot be met after the grant period is over,” Burr wrote. “As currently written, the draft requirements, priorities, selection criteria, and definitions will make it a challenge for California to participate responsibly.”

The Department of Education is proposing to award grants of between $50 million and $100 million. That’s not much of a range, and isn’t much of an incentive for big states like California to launch comprehensive efforts. Burr suggested allowing states to focus on a few priorities instead of a full battery of items that the feds would like: early learning assessments, kindergarten readiness tests, and inclusion of prekindergarten students in a statewide student database. She also asked that the feds permit applications on behalf of regional or county projects instead of requiring only statewide efforts. California took this tack in the second round of the K-12 Race to the Top competition last year; seven districts, including Fresno, Long Beach, and Los Angeles Unified districts – which combined are larger than many states – led California’s application and nearly came away with some money.

Burr said that California might focus on issues related to school readiness: linking standards for early childhood programs to the Common Core standards the state has adopted, developing (but not mandating) prekindergarten assessments, and aligning the curriculum for the state’s new transitional kindergarten to K12 standards. These would be reasonable one-time expenditures, she said.

If it does apply, California would likely once again be penalized for not having an effective student longitudinal data system. It was one of areas in the last Race to the Top application that hurt the state’s chances. And since then, the California Longitudinal Pupil Achievement Data System’s troubles have continued. Not only does it not include prekindergarten students, but Gov. Jerry Brown wanted to shut down CALPADS and give back the federal money for its completion (the Legislature reinstated the money anyway.).

Playing the cards right

CALPADS aside, Ted Lempert, president of Children Now, says that California is recognized for several early childhood initiatives. Chief among them is the Quality Rating and Improvement System, which measures the effectiveness of child care providers and rewards those that meet high standards. It’s being tested in several counties with the help of foundations.

Lempert said he’d like to see Race to the Top money used to continue pilot programs in counties adopting the child provider rating system, to roll out readiness assessments and to add prekindergarten students to CALPADS, so that all of these projects are ready to go to scale when the state gets more revenue.

“There’s is a way to pitch our application to say, ‘Help us to continue with the building blocks for pilots in key areas around the state,’” Lempert said.

Other states appear to be moving ahead with their applications, pending the final regulations. But Lempert said informal conversations are occurring in California, so it won’t be starting from scratch if the State Board and Superintendent Tom Torlakson do decide later this summer to move forward. Lempert hopes they will.


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