Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Wisconsin Just Misses a $50 million Early Learning Challenge Grant: What Happened and What’s Next?

Wisconsin barely missed receiving a $50 million federal Race to the Top- Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) grant in a competitive process in December 2011. Wisconsin ranked 11 among the 37 states that applied; the top 9 were funded. If there is a 2nd round, Wisconsin could be in good shape

To see the scores and ranks by state, go to:

In a December press release, WCCF commended the collaborative strategic planning effort by the Wisconsin grant-writing team, headed by the Department of Children and Families and the Department of Public Instruction in coordination with the Governor’s office. A significant factor in the solid proposal was strategic planning by the Early Childhood Advisory Council that served as the framework for the proposal, helping to galvanize a Wisconsin plan with crucial components of a strong early learning and development system.

Who was funded and why?
In December 2011 nine states (California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Washington State) were awarded four-year RTT-ELC grants ranging from approximately $44 to 70 million to improve their early learning and development systems.

The final list surprised the expectations many experts. For example, the New America Foundation’s Early Ed Watch blog projected 11 states as top contenders, based on how they ranked past performance by the states, but only 3 of those were funded: North Carolina, Maryland, and Ohio. So much for predictions.

A later analysis by Early Ed Watch found that 6 of the 9 winners had also won the K-12 version of Race to the Top. It appears that the decisions may have been made more on t what the states were proposing to do ( and how well they met the criteria) than on the state’s history of building an early childhood system.

Proposals that emphasized collaborative planning across state departments scored highly in the grant competition, according to Kathleen Sibelius, Secretary of the federal Department of Health and Human Services. She indicated that a key ingredient in the 9 winning states’ proposals was a holistic approach across government agencies and public and private sectors.

How did Wisconsin rank compared to surrounding states?
Of the surrounding states, here were the rankings:
Minnesota 7 (Got a federal RTT-ELC grant)
Wisconsin 11
Illinois 14
Michigan 18
Iowa 34

Indiana, South Dakota, and North Dakota did not apply. Wisconsin did extremely well, considering we had a new administration and we got started later on the proposal than many states.

Next steps toward an early learning system in Wisconsin
The possibility of another RTT-ELC round looks hopeful for next year, although it is hard to predict what will happen in Washington. Given Wisconsin’s ranking, it could be very competitive in a 2nd round.

In the meantime, state officials, in coordination with the Governor’s Early Childhood Advisory Council, are determining to what extent progress can be made on the state’s Race to the Top plan, which focused on the following strategies:
  • YoungStar: strengthening the YoungStar quality rating and improvement system,
  • Home Visiting: expanding evidence-based home visiting programs to better engage and support families,
  • Better-qualified workforce: enhancing professional development to ensure a quality early care workforce,
  • Data: developing an early childhood longitudinal data system,
  • Kindergarten assessment: establishing a assessment to measure children’s readiness at school entry, and
  • Public-Private Partnership: launching a Public-Private Partnership to bring more resources to local communities for quality improvement.

Already the Read to Lead Task Force, co-chaired by Governor Walker and DPI Superintendent Tony Evers, has recommended early literacy screening for all four- and five-year-old kindergartners and an early childhood longitudinal data initiative is forging ahead.

Evidence of economic benefits draw bipartisan support
Recent support for early learning investments seem to be gaining bi-partisan support across the states and in Washington, probably boosted by the evidence of economic benefits. At a press conference announcing the Early Learning Challenge awards, James Heckman, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, said: “Investments in the early life cycle of disadvantaged children, especially, have much higher economic and social returns than many later intervention programs ....”

The recent results of 2012 federal budget deliberations provide an example of support for early childhood investments, including:
  • Head Start increase of $424 million.
  • CCDBG increase of $60 million.
  • Race to the Top received $550 million, which is less than last year's $698 million. The Secretary will determine how much of the $550 million will be dedicated to the Early Learning Challenge. The Statement of Managers accompanying the bill says they "expect that the Secretary will include a robust early childhood component."
Let’s hope Wisconsin has a chance to compete in a 2nd round of RTT-ELC.

--Dave Edie

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