Early Childhood

Glenda Ritz calls Pence's preschool decision "bad for children"

PHOTO: Hayleigh Colombo
Gov. Mike Pence and state Superintendent Glenda Ritz battled over education policy for years, but they agreed on dumping Common Core and PARCC.

Indiana State Superintendent Glenda Ritz today criticized Gov. Mike Pence for halting the state’s efforts to seek an $80 million federal preschool grant “without warning.”

“Whatever his motivation, one thing is clear: Pence’s about-face with little or no notice to those who had worked in concert with his administration on the grant application is bad for our state and our children,” Ritz said in a statement.

“The governor expressed concern about federal requirements that would have come with this money, but thus far has failed to provide any specifics,” she said.

Ritz wasn’t the first person to weigh in on Pence’s surprising decision. Reaction to his choice, which leaves $80 million in federal funds on the table, has been mixed.

Here’s a roundup of what people have said.

Ritz went on to lay out her view of the grant’s value:

“Here are the facts. First, the grant did not require a state or local match. Funds that we rejected will now be used by other states. Second, the funds would not have resulted in kindergarteners taking tests to qualify to enter kindergarten. But, third, we would finally have had the ability to ensure that our children come to Kindergarten ready to learn and these funds would have helped form the basis for their future educational attainment. We need high quality early childhood education.”

When Pence’s change of direction on the grant was first reported by Indianapolis Star columnist Matt Tully on Thursday, it shocked Indiana’s early education advocates. Chalkbeat quoted Stand For Children executive Director Justin Ohlemiller saying he was caught off guard by Pence’s decision:

“The announcement left us shocked and troubled,” said Stand For Children executive director Justin Ohlemiller, whose organization advocates for change in school districts and at the state level. “Our hope is that there will be a clearer explanation and more detail in the coming days about why the sudden decision to not move forward. Our first reaction is that we’re shocked given the momentum that has been built with multiple parties working toward this goal, not to mention we seemed to be in a very strong position to vie for the funding.”

In a guest column for The Statehouse File on Friday, Pence argued the state should go its own way on preschool. Pence wrote:

“It’s important to note that many early learning programs across the country have not been successful over the years. On behalf of the children the pilot is designed to serve, it is imperative that Indiana get this right. Indiana’s program is based on parental choice and includes the flexibility and accountability needed to ensure children are in programs that get real results.

“It is important not to allow the lure of federal grant dollars to define our state’s mission and programs. More federal dollars do not necessarily equal success, especially when those dollars come with requirements and conditions that will not help – and may even hinder – running a successful program of our own making.

“An important part of our pre-K pilot is the requirement that we study the program so we understand what works and what doesn’t. I do not believe it is wise policy to expand our pre-K pilot before we have a chance to study and learn from the program.”

The state’s move to pass on the grant brought a flood of opinion over the weekend about why Pence made the move and whether it was the right decision.

The Associated Press wrote that social conservatives and tea party groups considered it a victory that Pence was persuaded not to work with the federal government on preschool. The AP’s Tom LoBianco wrote about efforts to scuttle the grant by Hoosiers Against Common Core’s co-founder Heather Crossin:

“Crossin is hardly a stalwart Pence supporter; her group lambasted the governor for formally withdrawing the state from Common Core education standards earlier this year, while replacing them with standards strikingly similar to the federal rules. And a little more than a week ago, her group chastised Pence for his creation of a “data czar” to oversee reams of government data, including student information.

“Many similar groups, long considered Pence’s political base stemming to his years in Congress, have expressed frustration at his decision to seek an expansion of Medicaid using a state-run alternative.

“But Wednesday they were cheering the governor.”

Earlier this month, Hoosiers Against Common Core described the grant as expanding “taxpayer funded day care.” When advocates complained that group’s lobbying cost the state $80 million that could have helped poor children prepare for kindergarten, it responded by arguing Indiana’s chances of winning the grant were far from certain. The group posted on its website:

“The truth is that the categories and eligible award amounts were determined based upon the state’s population of four-year-old children eligible for the program, nothing more.

“The only thing that makes a state more likely to win is to agree to the 18 pages of federal requirements stipulated throughout the grant, such as mandating full day care, extensive testing, and data collection on children who are only four-years-old.”

The Indiana State Teachers Union, which is often critical of Pence, drew a direct line between the activism of Hoosiers Against Common Core and Pence’s decision. On its blog, ISTA wrote:

“Some have also speculated that the governor was concerned that by accepting the federal grant, the state’s preschool program couldn’t be folded into Indiana’s controversial school voucher program. Whatever the backdrop and underlying motivation, one thing is certain: thousands of Indiana’s neediest children will once again pay the price for loyalty to narrow political agendas.”

Over the weekend, the Indianapolis Star reported that the debate over the grant exposed a rift on the political right between those who are pushing hard for more preschool funding in the state and those who are skeptical of state-funded learning before kindergarten. The Star’s Robert King wrote:

“The governor also expressed concerns about unspecified ‘requirements and conditions’ associated with the federal grant that could hinder Indiana’s program.

“But corporate supporters of preschool education say the state has plenty of resources at its disposal — including financial support from the private sector — to move forward more quickly.

“‘Indiana has a unique, but urgent opportunity to seize the moment as the private and public sector are ready to take a bold step to educate our young people,'” said John Elliott, a spokesman for Kroger grocery chain.

“‘We respectfully disagree with the governor’s decision not to pursue $80 million in federal funding and ask that he reconsider his decision,” Elliott said. “There are enough engaged stakeholders focused on this priority to help build upon the administration’s pilot program and ensure rapid, successful and measurable growth in early childhood programs.’

“On the other side of the issue are social conservative groups — another traditional base of political support for Pence.

“His rejection of the federal grant was greeted warmly by American Family Association of Indiana, which is skeptical of the benefits of preschool programs and dubious of putting 4-year-olds into government programs.”

Some of Pence’s critics speculated that the decision was driven more by his presidential ambitions than by Indiana’s needs. (One of his potential primary opponents, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, also was criticized for deciding not to apply for the same federal preschool grant.) The Indiana-based blogger Doug Masson wrote:

“The cynical mind, however, immediately jumps to Gov. Pence’s presidential ambitions. Even bearing in mind that our share of this federal money is coming out of our pockets anyway and will now be going to some other state instead, I think we can all agree that forgoing $80 million to improve the education of young Hoosiers is a small price to pay to ease the minds of Iowa and New Hampshire caucus and primary voters.”

The editorial board of the Indianapolis Star joined Pence’s critics, writing in an editorial over the weekend that the decision was “perplexing and disappointing.” It wrote:

“Mike Pence, once a skeptic about the value of early childhood education, has taken major steps forward on the issue in the past two years. He was beginning to lead on the issue in a way that no previous Indiana governor had shown. His sudden step back is a hard blow for the state. And worse, for its children and their families.”

leading the state

Three things we heard at a gubernatorial candidates forum on early childhood

PHOTO: Ann Schimke | Chalkbeat
Jared Polis, the Democratic candidate for Colorado governor, and Lang Sias, the Republican lieutenant governor candidate, spoke at forum on early childhood issues.

Stark differences in how Colorado’s two would-be governors plan to tackle early childhood issues were clear at a candidate forum Monday evening.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, the Democratic nominee, envisions free full-day preschool and kindergarten for all Colorado children — a sweeping and pricey expansion of what’s currently available.

Republican lieutenant governor candidate Lang Sias, who stood in for gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton, said Republicans would focus public funds on narrower programs that benefit the poorest children.

Currently, Colorado funds early childhood programs for some of its young children. The state provides half-day preschool to 4-year-olds with certain risk factors, but the program covers only some of those who qualify. In addition, the state reimburses districts for just over half the cost of full-day kindergarten, leaving districts to pay for the rest or pass on the cost to families through tuition. Last spring, lawmakers expanded the state income tax credit for child care costs, but most families still need to come up with hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month.

Monday’s event at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science represented a rare opportunity to hear candidates address early childhood issues, which are often overshadowed on the campaign trail by topics such as housing, roads and health care. While the forum highlighted some of the big early childhood ideas championed by each campaign, it also left plenty of unanswered questions.

Stapleton, Colorado’s state treasurer, was originally slated to speak at the forum, but backed out citing family obligations. Sias, a state representative from Arvada and a member of the House Education Committee, spoke in his place.

Polis and Sias didn’t debate each other at Monday’s forum, or otherwise interact. Polis went first, giving a short statement about his early childhood platform then answering several questions posed by moderator Bill Jaeger, vice president for early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign. Sias followed suit.

The event was sponsored by Constellation Philanthropy, a group of funders focused on early childhood issues. (Constellation is a Chalkbeat funder.)

Here are three things we learned from the forum:

The candidates have different ideas about which young children need help and how to provide it

In discussing his plans to create universal full-day preschool and kindergarten, Polis talked about using a public-private financing mechanism that’s sometimes called “social impact bonds.”

In this kind of financing — also called “pay for success” — private investors or philanthropists pay up front for social programs and get repaid with interest if those programs save public money by reducing the need for costly services such as special education or reading remediation. If a project doesn’t yield the hoped-for savings, the investors lose some or all of their money.

Polis said if he wins in November, he’ll immediately “work out how to partner with philanthropy to create more early childhood education for all income levels.”

Currently a version of social impact bonds is being used to pay for full-day preschool for some students in the Westminster school district north of Denver, a fact Polis mentioned Monday. Still, the financing mechanism is relatively untested in Colorado’s education sphere and it’s unclear how it might be scaled to pay for something as ambitious as statewide full-day preschool and kindergarten.

When talking about the Republican ticket’s early-education priorities, Sias described early childhood education as “incredibly important” but “very inequitably distributed.”

“We want to focus our public spending on those who are least able to afford it on their own,” he said.

He cited a proposal for education savings accounts that allow families to set aside money tax-free for educational expenses, including early childhood education.

“We realize that is more focused on middle-class and above families,” he said, “but by targeting that money using that program, we feel we will have more available to target the folks at the bottom of the spectrum who really cannot avail themselves of that opportunity.”

Education savings accounts don’t typically work for low-income parents because they have no extra money to set aside for future expenses.

The candidates would take different approaches to strengthening the early childhood workforce

In a field marked by low pay and tough working conditions, recruiting and retaining qualified teachers is a chronic problem. The candidates had ideas about how to bulk up the workforce.

Sias advocated for a residency program to help turn out new early childhood teachers, similar to what he’s previously proposed to help address the K-12 teacher shortage. He said such programs are data-driven, helping retain teachers for longer periods and improving student results.

He also floated the idea of recruiting midlife career-changers to early childhood work — “folks north of 50” — and hinted that they would work in the low-paid field.

“Is that an opportunity to tap into … folks who would like to fill those spots who maybe don’t have the same set of issues that millennials do in terms of how long they want to stay and how long they need to be committed, and frankly how much they need to be paid?”

While some middle-aged people do enter the field, mediocre pay, a maze of state regulations, and the growing push to boost providers’ education levels could make it a tough sell.

Polis talked about creating partnerships with colleges to beef up the credentials of people who currently work in the early childhood field.

He said it’s important to “bridge the skills gap” for those whose hearts are already in the work. He didn’t address how he could dramatically expand preschool and kindergarten simply by focusing on the existing workforce, where turnover can be as high as 40 percent annually.

Neither candidate talked about how he would boost compensation for early childhood workers, whose median pay in Colorado is $12.32 an hour, Jaeger said.

Both candidates agree that Colorado can do much better by its youngest residents

When asked how Colorado is doing overall in supporting young children and their families, both candidates agreed that the state has a long way to go.

Sias emphasized that low-income children continue to be left out. Polis talked about the lack of uniform access to full-day kindergarten.

Both candidates expressed interest in working with bipartisan coalitions on solutions.

“There’s so many people in our state who want to do right by their kids,” said Polis. “It’s really going to take folks from across the spectrum coming together.”

Sias, who argued for a combination of business-minded acumen and public money for early childhood, asked the audience to partner with lawmakers in finding what programs work.

He said he and Stapleton are “more than willing to work across the aisle with folks that we like and respect, and have knowledge in this area.”

Early Childhood

Jeff Bezos says he will use his riches to open Montessori preschools

PHOTO: Nick Hagen
A student in a Detroit Montessori program. Jeff Bezos announced today on Twitter that he would be pouring $2 billion into two major initiatives, including “a network of new, non-profit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities.”

The latest effort to improve early childhood education for poor children comes from the richest man alive: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Bezos announced today on Twitter that he would be pouring $2 billion into two major initiatives, including “a network of new, non-profit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities.”

The preschools, Bezos wrote, will be free for students and inspired by the Montessori approach, in which children direct their own learning in an environment that is prepared for them to explore. Montessori instruction has traditionally been available only in private schools, but new efforts to make the model more accessible have taken hold, and recent research suggests that it benefits children from low-income families.

Bezos also signaled that he intends to apply his famously stringent standards to the new schools. The hands-on CEO reportedly still reads emails from Amazon customers and has been known to berate executives when the customer experience suffers. At the preschools, he wrote, “The child will be the customer.”

Much about the initiative is unclear, from what “tier-one” means to where, when, and how many schools will open. Bezos’s announcement did not acknowledge the current bipartisan movement to fund preschool more widely, so it’s unclear whether his network might ever seek public money or how it might interact with — or even crowd out — existing efforts to expand preschools.

It’s also not clear how much transparency to expect from Bezos’s effort, which he called the Day One Fund. A number of wealthy individuals, including Mark Zuckerberg, have organized their giving through a limited liability company, rather than a nonprofit. This approach does not require disclosing who receives grants and allows the organizations to give to political causes and invest in for-profit companies.

Research has pointed to long-run benefits of early childhood education programs. One recent study found that the benefits extended to multiple generations — the children of children who participated in the federal Head Start program were more likely to graduate from high school and attend college.

In addition to preschools, the Day One Fund will tackle homelessness, according to Bezos, who crafted his giving strategy after asking his Twitter followers how he should spend his wealth.