Policy Analysis | June 2011

Race to the Top Round 3

Jonathan Watts Hull

The U.S. Department of Education announced at the end of May that it was opening up a new round of Race to the Top grants worth $700 million, with $500 million dedicated to a new Early Learning Challenge Program with the additional funds available to the nine states that were finalists but failed to win in the second round of grantmaking (Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and South Carolina).

South Carolina has declined the offer on the grounds that the funds would come with too many conditions. The eight remaining states will be offered grants to support parts of their original Race to the Top applications. As South Carolina's decision to opt out of the third round of Race to the Top highlights, states are viewing with some skepticism the model being promoted by the Department of Education. For its part, the Department of Education has acknowledged this, noting that the awards for the K-12 part of the program are to "investments" on reforms these states have already made, not rewards or inducements to do new things. Nonetheless, states are leery of assuming the potential increased fiscal obligations of federally encouraged reforms such as enhanced student data systems and teacher performance evaluations and compensation without significantly more funds than the limited grant will afford, as these programs could require continued fiscal support at a time when finances already are tight.

The Early Learning Challenge Program asks states to commit to expanding opportunities for high quality early learning, particularly among low-income children. The program, which is being coordinated with the Department of Health and Human Services (which operates Head Start), asks states to take a comprehensive approach to early childhood learning systems. While criteria are still under development, states are asked to increase participation (in both numerical and percentage terms) of low-income and disadvantaged infants, toddlers, and preschoolers enrolled in high quality early learning programs. These programs also must be part of a comprehensive and integrated whole, likely pulling together elements of Head Start, childcare, home visitation initiatives and state-funded pre-K programs. Indeed, in many states in the South, the components already are in place to achieve the goals of the grant program, although they generally are poorly-coordinated and seldom aligned.

This new program arrives at an interesting time in early childhood education. The Tennessee Comptroller has just released the final report on the Tennessee Pre-Kindergarten Program, which found that children who participated in the program experienced early gains that clearly improved school readiness. The report also notes, although somewhat less conclusively, that any advantage pre-K participation may give children has vanished by the second grade. The evidence for significant gains from investments in early education has been challenged on other fronts as well. Notable among these is research by New York University's Amy Lowenstein, who found that while high quality early childhood education programs demonstrate short-term gains, the benefits do not persist "in the absence of additional educational and social supports." Nobel-prize winning economist James Heckman also has acknowledged the diminishing academic advantage of early education programs, but emphasizes that the socio-emotional soft skills that such programs develop are never lost and return great benefits both to the child and their community in reduced costs and improved outcomes. Heckman is not alone in arguing that early childhood education is a very good investment that returns real dividends, a point that was emphasized by Dr. Barnett Berry of the National Institute for Early Education Research at the SLC Annual Meeting in 2008. According to Dr. Berry, some long-running programs have returned investments at rates of up to 16 to 1.

The implications for the Tennessee study and others on the larger early learning discussion are unclear. Demonstrable gaps between low-income and middle income children emerge as early as two years of age and are fully evident by age four in reading, language, mathematics, fine motor skills and other areas of development. The design of the Tennessee study and the changes to the program over time make even those conclusions that it does draw limited in scope, and the program in question began at an age when many of the learning deficits and disadvantages may already have been entrenched. The Tennessee report would seem to underscore the need to remediate even earlier than age 4, which is, in part, what the coordination of early childhood programs to the toddler level is intended to address

States have raised questions, however, about the possibility of instituting an integrated, intentional model of high-quality early childhood when state budgets are so fragile. Indeed, according to the State of Preschool 2010 Yearbook, state funding for pre-K programs declined by $30 million between 2009 and 2010 (and would have dropped more if not for $19.3 million in federal stimulus funds).

The declines are not a national phenomenon, however, with slightly less than half of the 40 states with publicly funded pre-K programs reducing their funding (resulting in an average reduction of $117 per pupil). Perhaps more significantly in the context of early childhood education, the Yearbook reports that national enrollment of 3-year-olds in publicly funded preschool programs actually declined between 2009 and 2010 (although Arkansas distinguished itself in the region by increasing participation by nearly 50 percent). Owing perhaps to the large commitments several Southern states have in 4-year-old pre-K, many states in the region have no public pre-K programs for 3-year-olds. For states which already have made large investments in pre-Kindergarten programs, the scope of integrating these into an education and care model that includes 2- and 3-year-olds would involve investments well beyond the scale that even a generous award from the $700 million grant program is likely to ensure.