Thursday, December 8, 2011

Too Little, Too Late?

This from Sara Mead in The New Republic:

Obama’s Education Legacy For America’s Youngest Kids:
Too Little, Too Late
IN THE SPRING of 2011, after years of disappointments, early childhood education advocates became hopeful that the Obama administration was finally ready to adopt a more aggressive federal role in promoting early learning. Of the $700 million included in the 2011 federal budget for Race to the Top (RTT), the administration chose to use the majority—$500 million—to fund a new early childhood-focused RTT competition called Early Learning Challenge. Taking a page from RTT, Early Learning Challenge was designed to award funds on a competitive basis to states with the best plans to measurably improve children’s readiness for school. Some early childhood advocates were moved to euphoria. The First Five Years Fund, a national early childhood advocacy group, called the new grant program “an unprecedented opportunity to make dramatic progress” in improving early learning. White House Education Advisor Roberto Rodriguez told reporters that “We believe this [iteration of] Race to the Top can have the same kind of impact” as the original.

Even before new grant program got out the gate, however, it quickly became clear that its rollout was poorly timed. The administration’s prior RTT program achieved its greatest successes by spurring state legislatures to enact major policy changes—adopting federal standards, raising charter school caps, establishing new teacher evaluation systems—in order to better position themselves to win large pots of grant money. More than 20 states passed legislation to improve their RTT chances.

Early Learning Challenge, by contrast, has spurred only one state, Florida, to take legislative action. That’s because state legislatures weren’t made aware of the program’s details until it was too late. Because congressional budget negotiations dragged on until April, the administration didn’t announce the ELC program until late May and details of the program emerged only in July, after most state legislatures had adjourned. Moreover, the relatively modest amount of money in play (up to $100 million for the largest states) simply wasn’t enough to entice legislatures back into session.

The program has also been marred by a half-hearted public relations campaign. With state legislatures failing take up the issue, and Obama not finding much time to talk about it either, Early Learning Challenge has failed to spark the kind of national debate around early childhood education that Race to the Top did for school reform...

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