The state’s application for a $70 million Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grant, submitted this week, provides final details on the state’s plans for overhauling early childhood services and education. 

One thing that isn’t in the plans: increased funding for new preschool slots. But advocates are pinning their hopes on the idea that having more data on the results of early childhood programs will strengthen their ability to advocate for more money later.

The application lays out a number of ambitious goals for the state, including:

*Enrolling 40 percent of low-income 3-year-olds and 70 percent of low-income 4-year-olds in high-quality preschool programs.

*Ensuring that 80 percent of the state’s students and 65 percent of high-need students demonstrate “full kindergarten readiness” by fall 2019. Previously, the state had sought to have 55 percent of students kindergarten-ready by fall 2015.

*Providing a full five years of early childhood services–such as home visiting, Early Head Start, and preschool–to 15 percent of the state’s high-needs children.

* Increasing collaboration between the Illinois State Board of Education and the Illinois Department of Human Services, which administers child care and some home visiting programs, including a joint budgeting process, data-sharing, and coordinating procurement, contracting, performance evaluation, and information technology. The Civic Consulting Alliance has agreed to provide free help with the project.

A new Consortium for Early Learning Research, modeled on the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, would evaluate early childhood programs and the state’s progress in meeting its goals.

Recruiting high-need families

As a way to recruit highest-need families to participate in early childhood programs, the proposal touts “community collaborations” in specific geographic areas.

Community groups and hospitals would automatically assess families’ and pregnant women’s needs and steer them to whatever services might be helpful, “to ensure there is ‘no wrong door’ for families to gain entry to a system of supports for their child’s early learning and development,” the grant proposal states.

In 15 communities, the state will provide matching grants to support the programs. The application notes that the “local outreach and engagement collaboratives,” proposed by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to coordinate screening in each Chicago elementary school network, would work the same way.

Parent leadership programs, such as those used by Community Organizing and Family Issues, are mentioned in the grant as another way to improve outreach.

New quality supports for programs

The application also sets a goal of moving one-quarter of the state’s preschool programs to the highest quality tier of a new quality rating system. This is needed because, the application notes, “over 60 percent of CPS classroom scores and 70 percent of Chicago Head Start classroom [scores] indicated minimal intentional support for children’s learning.”

Under Emanuel’s early childhood task force recommendations, the application notes, all city-funded child care programs will soon use the same child screenings, assessments and classroom evaluations (like the Classroom Assessment Scoring System) that are currently being used in CPS preschool programs.

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