This latest Pre-to-3 column focuses on the Preschool Development Grant application window, which opens Aug. 14 and closes Oct. 15. Past installments of Pre-to-3 can be found here.
On Tuesday, states can begin applying for a total of $250 million in Preschool Development Grants, a provision within the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) that they can use to “expand access to and improve the coordination and quality of early-childhood education programs for children from birth to age 5,” according to a 2016 guidance from the U.S. Department of Education (ED).
Administered by both ED and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the grants represent the first time that the Elementary and Secondary Education Act has included funding specifically for early-childhood, even though states have long been able to use Title I funds for preschool and other programs for young children.
“With this reauthorization, the ESEA has been transformed from a K–12 education law to one which envisions a preschool through 12th grade (P–12) continuum of learning,” the guidance said.
The first round of PDG awards to 18 states took place under the Obama administration as part of a 2014 appropriations legislation. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research’s "State of Preschool 2017" report, roughly $91 million of the $230 million provided through PDG “supported increased enrollment or quality enhancement in state preschool, while the remaining funds supported children in preschool programs outside state-funded preschool.”
Alabama, for example, used the funds to expand its First Class Pre-K program and made quality improvements to existing classrooms. Connecticut focused on improving monitoring tools for classrooms and completing an early-childhood information data system. And Montana developed and expanded preschool programs in high-need communities, including eight Indian reservations.
“The establishment of the PDG under ESSA is a significant bipartisan accomplishment that could substantially contribute to ensuring all children are set up for success in school and life, starting with access to high-quality early childhood education beginning at birth,” 23 K-12 and early-childhood organizations wrote in an April letter to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and HHS Secretary Alex Azar.
They called on the agency heads to require a competitive structure for this new round of grants so states can emphasize the importance of quality while still allowing grantees to address local needs. They also wrote that states’ needs assessments should be used to develop “ambitious strategic plans,” and that if any of the original 18 states receive renewal grants, it should be those that are committed to “continuous improvement and evaluation.”
In 2016, Dale Farren, director of the Peabody Research Institute at Vanderbilt University wrote that none of the original PDG funds were dedicated to an independent evaluation, and that the ESSA PDG plan doesn’t include an objective evaluation either.
“If the new pre-K programs are truly to serve as models for others, that presumes that they will be evaluated, revised, and continuously improved until a valid form of the program exists for replication by others,” wrote Farran, who is also one of the researchers who recently released research showing no lasting positive effects for children who attended Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program.
In an email, she said that while NIEER has offered to consult with PDG states, “What is needed is a completely independent and funded evaluation group that would have the power to ask grantees to collect similar data on children’s achievement and socio-emotional development as well as classroom processes.”
Unlike the first round of grants, these new awards are not intended to create additional preschool slots, but to focus more on coordinating and improving the quality of existing services. The awards, which are expected to go to 40 states, will range from a minimum of $500,000 to a maximum of $10 million.
In an interview, Danielle Ewen, a senior policy adviser at EducationCounsel, a D.C.-based consulting organization, said that the PDG program is “an opportunity for states to look across all the services that families need in early childhood ... and to make sure those systems are working in the highest quality way possible.”
And last week in Los Angeles, during a session on the opportunity gap at the National Conference of State Legislatures' annual summit, Katharine Stevens of the American Enterprise Institute emphasized that while states have focused on expanding pre-K, the gaps between children in poverty and those from more advantaged homes begin in infancy.
"Science is telling us that the critical development that lays the foundation is laid beginning at birth," she said, adding that the grants are a way to improve the two primary places where young children are spending their days — home and child care. "Child care may be America’s most important early education program."