Ohio, like every state except Vermont, is forced to end its fiscal year in the black. This balanced budget requirement and the realities of state budgeting can lead to some unexpected shortfalls and sudden shifts in priorities. Some programs face the chopping block, while others—even those championed by legislators and governors—never make it to the table.
A federal pot of money, then, offers an opportunity to fund new expenditures or initiatives that need a jump start. For anyone not wanting to suffer through the inevitable nail-biting of state budget deliberations, federal grants can feel like a chance at winning the lottery. I know, I know—some of us need to get out more.
For early childhood advocates, the latest federal preschool development grant offers a chance for Ohio to improve the quality of programming not just in Pre-K, but in childcare programs from birth to age five. The first grant round happened in 2014; that award cycle focused primarily on expanding the number of children enrolled in preschool. Ohio applied for, but did not win, the FY 2014 grant. This second round of the grant—which totals a quarter of a billion dollars annually—focuses heavily on building strategic infrastructure to coordinate and improve the quality of existing services. That is, states must use the money to create strategic plans, conduct needs assessments, maximize parental choice, increase collaboration and efficiency of services, and improve the overall quality of programming.
Up to $15 million is up for grabs for each state (for up to 40 states). That may not seem like much, but keep in mind that the state expenditure for preschool (for 4 year-olds) in Ohio is just $73 million. Even a few million dollars committed to infrastructure-building efforts and quality enhancement could make a real impact. Applications are due November 6 and the anticipated project start date is mid-December—leaving a tight timeline for Ohio to submit its application and move forward with its promises.
It also represents the first time the nation’s major federal education civil rights law–that is, the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), revamped as No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and reauthorized via the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2015–appropriates significant funds to early learning. As Sarah Rittling, Executive Director of the First Five Years Fund, notes: “By incorporating the new Preschool Development Grant program into ESSA, Congress affirmed the importance of early learning, beginning at birth, to the law’s goals of advancing equal access to education and the central role of states in leading early childhood coordination, quality, and access efforts.”
That alone is worth celebrating. Here’s a quick look at the parameters of the preschool development grant (PDG), including a brief comparison to the first iteration of this grant.
|Old (FY 2014)||New – 2018 application|
|Total amount||$250,000,000 for FY 14, FY 15, and FY 16||
$250,000,000 per year, through 2020
|Authorized by:||2014 federal appropriations act||
Reauthorization of ESEA via ESSA
|Number of states to receive grant||18 (past winners found here)||
Up to 40 will win awards
Development grants in year 1 (awarded to states with no state preschool programs or small programs) ranged from $2.1 million (Hawaii) to $20 million (Arizona) while “expansion” grants were awarded in the range of $2.4 (Louisiana) million to $25 million (New York)
|Awards will range from $500,000 to $15 million.|
Applications were scored in part based upon their alignment with “birth to third grade continuum”
|Application has a more narrow focus, mentioning only birth to age five.|
|Purpose||To develop or enhance a state’s preschool program infrastructure and to sustain high-quality preschool in targeted communities to serve eligible children (defined as: 4 year-olds, at or below 200% of FPL). The majority of the funds were spent on expansion—that is, funding slots and increasing enrollment.
|Awards will fund five program activities (in order):
1) Birth through five needs assessment of the availability and quality of state programs;
No, but preference was given to states that provided a match.
|Yes, each state must promise at least a 30% match.|
Source: First Five Years Fund 2016 comparative analysis; FY 2014 preschool development grants FAQ document; 2018 application.
According to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) in its State of Preschool 2017 report, the last round of federal PDG drove a real increase in the number of children enrolled in preschool. NIEER estimated that one-third of the increase in enrollment in state-funded preschool nationwide in 2015-16 (for 3 and 4 year-olds) resulted from PDG funding.Certainly, more children enrolled in preschool seems like a good thing. But PDG’s first round delivered very little in terms of definitive answers about the quality of state programs—answers necessary to target dollars effectively, drive policy change, and implement program improvements.
Dale C. Farran, Research Professor at Vanderbilt University, has raised concern that none of the $226 million allocated during the first grant included an independent and objective evaluation of state programs. In a paper for Brookings in mid-2016, she argued, “When the PDGs were first announced, no independent, national evaluation was proposed at the same time from the same funding. Unfortunately, like many popular ideas in policy, there was a rush to implement with no accompanying concern for learning from the process, despite the real need for information.”
Ohio, like other states, has a knowledge gap about what is and isn’t working with its current quality rating and improvement system (QRIS). To date, no evaluation has been conducted on what components of the state’s Step Up to Quality improvement rating system have led to program improvements—and ultimately, improved academic or social-emotional outcomes for children. Fortunately, the federal grant offers an opportunity for Ohio leaders to think strategically about how we measure and improve program quality so that more Ohio children are receiving a high-quality early learning experience.