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Brown shapes, signs Race to Top entry

10.20.2011 | Thoughts on Public Education | John Fensterwald

After keeping child education advocates and his own staff in suspense for months, Gov. Jerry Brown approved the state’s application to the federal Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge on Wednesday – but not before shaping it in a way that will either turn off or intrigue federal officials and competition judges.

The Race to the Top scoring guidelines emphasize states’ policies to improve learning and development programs for young children. But, consistent with Brown’s philosophy of letting 1,000 local districts – or, in this case, 16 regional consortia – bloom in a state as big and diverse as California, the application calls for turning over key decisions and 85 percent of the federal money to county and local efforts.

“The heart of our plan is local control, where the effort to improve the quality of early learning can best be accomplished,” Brown explained, in a letter to U.S. Dept. of Education Secretary Arne Duncan and U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius accompanying the  225-page application. Each consortium “will decide how to distinguish levels of quality, will identify priorities for improvement, and will determine which specific ways it will improve quality. I believe that this approach will be much more successful that any one-fits-all mandate from the state capitol.” See the letter here.

Sue Burr, executive director of the State Board of Education on Board President Michael Kirst’s behalf, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, an early supporter of this Race to the Top competition, also signed the application. California is eligible for as much as $100 million out of the $500 million pot of one-time money. The competition is expected to be crowded, with Florida and New York –  but not Texas – among the biggest states pursuing the maximum grants. (Note: California’s application is too big to upload for the blog, and it has not yet been posted on the state Department of Education website. Stay tuned.)

Scott Moore, senior policy advisor with Preschool California and the former executive of the state Early Learning Advisory Council, said that Brown has tried to “thread the needle” in satisfying the federal government’s requirements while not yielding on his own. The application “is not aligned with what the feds have outlined, but they could say, ‘Fund California and compare its approach to the other states.’ I can see both sides of this.”

California took the same tack in the second round of the K-12 Race to the Top, letting seven reform-minded districts write the application. The state became a semifinalist for that money, but Brown hasn’t decided whether to let the seven districts, which include Los Angeles, Long Beach, and San Francisco Unified,  apply again later this year, citing his worry that the federal money might require future state commitments. He initially had the same fear about the preschool competition, but the application reaffirms his demand that “the choices made in this application avoid new spending commitments and focus on smart uses of one-time investments.”

The heart of the state’s application involves the implementation of a Quality Rating and Improvement System by the 16 regional consortia – county offices of education and First 5 commissions in 15 counties – covering 1.8 million young children, about two-thirds of the age group. QRIS is a method of evaluating individual early learning programs, based on the physical environment, the quality of instruction, the child/teacher ratio, the education and effectiveness of the teachers, and other factors. While some states may tie the ratings to levels of state funding – and gain points in the competition – California is not proposing to do so. The goal is to encourage preschools, especially those serving low-income students and English learners, to improve the level of their care on their own, through teacher trainings, purchase of high-quality materials, and adoption of the state’s Early Childhood Frameworks or standards for developing children’s readiness for school. Each consortium will decide how to spend its share of the money, up to $1 million or more each year for four years.

The application doesn’t focus on transitional kindergarten, a 2-year kindergarten program for the state’s 120,000 late-birthday four-year-olds that will be phased in starting next fall. But Sue Burr said that each consortium could choose to direct money toward materials and professional development for their local districts’ transitional kindergartens.

Voluntary information for CALPADS

As with the K-12 Race to the Top, this competition emphasizes the use of data. The federal government ideally wants every state to include data on preschool students into its statewide data system. But Brown, consistent with his view that data should serve local schools’ needs, not state accountability purposes, demanded limits. The state has developed a useful assessment tool, the Desired Results Developmental Profile, that measures a child’s developmental progress based on teacher observations. The consortia and local preschools may choose to enter the assessments on students into CALPADS, the statewide database, to give kindergarten teachers a heads-up on the development readiness of incoming students. But the application emphasizes that CALPADS data for young children will be done voluntarily and will not be used for accountability purposes.

California became an early-childhood education leader 13 years ago, when voters dedicated a 50-cent tax on cigarettes and tobacco products to create First 5 California, distributing $650 million per year to First 5 commissions in 58 counties. Burr said that Race to the Top will focus on improving the quality of early-learning programs, with the goal that every student will be ready for kindergarten.

Moore, of Preschool California, praised the State Board, the Department of Education and advocates for joining together on the application – but especially the staff of the Child Development Division. “They worked tremendously hard with time and policy constraints,” he said, “knowing it might all be for naught” if Brown chose not to move forward.

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