Applications for the federal Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grant program are due in just a month, on Oct. 19, but it’s not clear yet what Illinois’ application will include.

Still, some say the state could be a strong contender. Illinois could get up to $70 million; some states could get up to $100 million. About 38 states are expected to throw their hats into the ring.

The grant program aims to strengthen the quality of, and access to, early-childhood education by focusing on kindergarten readiness for high-needs children. There are several focus areas the state must address in its application:

*A commitment to creating a statewide early learning system with coordination across a multitude of different programs. This may be one of the state’s strong points. Much of this work already occurs through the Illinois Early Learning Council.

*A common set of academic and social-emotional early learning standards, which Illinois already has in place, as well as quality requirements that apply to many different programs; for example, Head Start, Early Intervention, state preschool, and child care programs.

*A state plan for working with colleges and universities to “improve educator preparedness, quality and retention.” Illinois already has a “Gateways to Opportunity” system that provides child care workers with the opportunity to attend trainings, apply for scholarships, and receive pay raises in exchange for earning higher levels of education and work experience. That could win the state favorable reviews when judging time rolls around.

*A plan for implementing kindergarten entry assessments statewide and using them to track program quality, with a common framework for understanding children’s progress – no matter what type of early childhood program they attended. The state is still working on designing such a tool.

State could face challenges

An analysis by the New America Foundation labeled Illinois a “possible contender,” but not a “top contender,” partly because the kindergarten assessment isn’t up and running yet. A number of states already have similar assessments in place.

The state also lost points in the analysis for lacking an early literacy program with a parent engagement component, and because Quality Counts doesn’t currently include preschool programs or have standards relating to special-needs students and English learners.
Some fear that a recent evaluation showing children in state preschool made no progress in math could also hold Illinois back. And Illinois’ recent cuts to early childhood funding could hurt the state, once considered a leader in the field.

Another potential difficulty for the state: showing that it can effectively collect and use data across the wide variety of programs that comprise the state’s early childhood landscape.

Quality ratings will be key

Much of the competition will center on states’ Quality Rating and Improvement System, known as Quality Counts, a program by which child care centers, home-based child care businesses and unlicensed home care providers can earn increased state reimbursement by meeting a set of quality standards and attending trainings. The system accounts for a massive 75 points in the contest’s 300-point rating scale.

The system has four tiers. Programs complete an increasingly sophisticated number of steps to earn their first, second, third and fourth “stars.” Currently, almost 1,100 programs are part of the system, but only a couple programs have reached the highest level.

Programs earn stars through a combination of required staff training, national accreditation, a positive evaluation of their business and administrative practices, and earning good marks on evaluation scales like the Environmental Rating Scale, of which the Early Childhood Environmental Rating Scale is one component.

As part of the contest, Illinois will likely expand the system to include preschool and Head Start programs, as well as the child care centers and homes that it covers currently. The grant program considers it a “competitive priority” to fund applications that do this.

“The idea is not to expand slots with this. It’s to improve quality,” says Diana Rauner, president of the Ounce of Prevention Fund. “The federal government has decided that the mechanism by which to do that, is to improve the [quality rating system], bring more programs into it, and make that a more aggressive and comprehensive approach.”

However, comparing readiness levels across a variety of different programs with different goals is bound to be a difficult task.
If Illinois wins, child care, home visiting, special education, Title I and Head Start money could all be funneled toward helping implement the state’s plan – whatever it consists of.

State may have strong chances

Robin Steans, executive director of Advance Illinois, says that there is “a high degree of consistency” between what the Early Learning Challenge application looks for, and what Illinois is already doing. She points to the kindergarten assessment as a strength.

“We just finished a whole year of this solid statewide effort… [we] have buy-in from all the people we need buy-in from,” Steans says. “If we hadn’t done that, it would have been tougher.”

She says the state is “ahead of the curve” on the birth-to-5 access and quality issues identified by the grant. For instance, she notes, the state preschool program requires that teachers have four-year degrees in early childhood education, and principal candidates are now required to learn about early childhood education.

The state is in a good position because of the strength of its nonprofits – such as Illinois Action for Children, the Ounce of Prevention Fund, and the McCormick Foundation, she says. “As someone who used to be a funder, you’re not always just looking at what the paper says, what the application says. You’re looking at who’s standing behind it,” Steans notes.

The same goes for Gov. Pat Quinn setting up a governor’s office devoted to early childhood. “It indicates an interest to focus on this issue,” Steans says. “And, this is going to be a huge priority for the new mayor (Rahm Emanuel). Leadership, political will, outside expertise and support, and a track record… we’ve got all of that, in spades.”

Another Race to the Top

Also due in October is an application for the “third round” of Race to the Top, which is only open to second-round finalists. Illinois is among nine states eligible for the funds, though not all the states are pursuing the much smaller $200 million pot of money.

“The plan on that is to still be true to the original application,” Steans says. “The money is organized in a way that everybody can be successful. (And) we have made more progress on our Race to the Top plans than some of the states that got Race to the Top money.”

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