Still noncommital on Race to the Tot

Rating system for preschools would be priority

Applications for the preschool version of Race to the Top are due in about six weeks, but state officials have yet to decide whether California would join about three dozen states in applying.

Early childhood advocates say that the final criteria for the $500 million early learning competition are not as strict as federal officials initially implied and would give California at least a fighting chance for up to $100 million. They want the state to pursue the money.

“Federal officials did a good job of showing flexibility,” said Ted Lempert, president of Children Now, “but it will be up to us to make the case.”

A Race to the Top application must be jointly signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson and State Board of Education President Michael Kirst. Sue Burr, Executive Director of the State Board of Education, was noncommittal. She said in an email that the state would participate in a webinar this week and workshops in mid-September to learn more about what the feds expect.

Last month, Burr wrote Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to urge them not to impose on the winners “ongoing costs and cost pressures that cannot be met after the grant period is over.” That will remain a concern, and Burr will want to clarify whether the state can use the money for pre-kindergarten pilot projects in regions or counties instead of committing to projects like kindergarten assessments statewide – a potentially expensive commitment.

Lempert and Scott Moore, a senior policy adviser with Preschool California (see his TOPed opinion column today elsewhere on this page), agree on two priorities for a Race to the Top grant. One would be to fund the development of the curriculum and teacher training for transitional kindergarten, a two-year program for late-birthday 4-year-olds that California will phase in starting a year from now. The other would be to pilot test a Quality Rating and Improvement System, or QRIS, an evaluation rubric to provide a consistent, uniform way for state and county officials to evaluate the effectiveness of – and potentially to differentiate funding for – preschool programs.

Rolling out such a system is the top priority of the Race to the Top, and those states, like California, that already have developed a model will have an advantage in the competition; it’s worth up to a quarter of the maximum points. Two dozen states have developed QRISs, but, among larger states, neither Florida nor Texas plans to apply for a grant (not under Gov. Rick Perry, who opposes all things federal), and California is further along than New York, Moore said. (An analysis by the New America Foundation that handicaps states’ chances of getting a grant puts California in the middle, with most states, as possible contenders.)

The feds are requiring neither a statewide database including preschool children nor a statewide kindergarten readiness test as prerequisites for applying, but those states that have them will get extra points in the competition. Teachers unions had expressed worry that the tests would be used to evaluate teachers or to deny children access to kindergarten. But Duncan, in a press conference last week,  emphasized neither would be the case.

One potential stumbling block for California was Gov. Brown’s elimination from the budget of the state’s Early Learning Advisory Council, which would have administered the Race to the Top grant. The council, which Scott Moore ran as executive director, had a $10 million federal grant to test QRIS in the state; the money is still there. But not having a council – or its equivalent – will set back the state’s Race to the Top application, Moore said. He expects Brown will reestablish the council, perhaps within the state Department of Education.

1 Comment

  1. Why do states grovell for this pittance of funding, when there are absurd demands for the crumbs?  This competetive environment shields the Feds from accountability in their failure to lead, fund, and do anything other than pontificate absurdities.  Take local control of your schools.  Surrender, and suffer the consequences. 

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