Confused About Early Childhood Grants?

Sometimes I feel like my work life and home life are totally disconnected, competing elements in my world. But that certainly wasn’t the case the day I was at work drumming up info on how early childhood programs were being defunded and I received a text that the program for the 3-year old of my teenage foster daughter was ending because they lost their state grant.

This program, Parents as Teachers, is among hundreds of early child providers who responded to the Request for Proposals (RFP) from the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE). Many programs got funded. In fact, because Springfield added $50 million more this year to the Early Childhood Block Grant (ECBG), there will be 5,000 more kids getting access to programs this year. However, a hundred or so did not receive a grant, and some long-serving programs are planning to close their doors.

Before we get into why, let’s start with the basics: What is the ECBG? It’s a program in the ISBE budget that funds preschool and birth-to-three programs. This year, there was almost $500 million appropriated to the ECBG. Programs serving children ages 0-3 receive about 20% of the funds and the remainder goes to preschool programs.

State law requires funding to be awarded through competitive grants. That is, districts and other providers apply for grants, and ISBE funds the ones deemed to be high-quality. This year, the RFP process was opened to new applicants, which is a change since the last RFP process in 2012. At that time, the RFP was only open to providers that had previously received grants. Not only was this year’s RFP process open to new applicants, so the pool was bigger, applicants were encouraged to write their proposals for the actual costs of providing a high-quality program, so a lot more money was requested than there were available funds. Providers could apply for Prevention Initiative funding (for birth-to-three programs), Preschool for All (for Pre-K programs), and Preschool for All Expansion grants (to expand infrastructure and fund full-day programs in high-poverty areas’ Pre-K programs).

ISBE Rules outline what the agency looks for in the proposals and require programs to earn at least 60 points, with 100 points possible:

  • Population to be Served (e.g., how much poverty is in the area and how well do programs recruit the students most in need) – 30 points
  • Quality of Program – 40 points
  • Experience and Qualifications of Program Staff – 20 points
  • Cost Effectiveness of the Program – 10 points

ISBE added 10 additional “priority points” for programs that serve the neediest populations and regions. Three reviewers scored each proposal and their scores were averaged. Programs with more than 60 points would be qualified for funding. (Some programs we’ve heard about in the news didn’t meet the 60-point threshold, like Waukegan and Jonesboro.)

Among the programs that scored over 60, several dozen Prevention Initiative and Preschool Expansion Grants still did not receive a grant because there was not enough money to fully fund the need. (My foster granddaughter’s program is in this category: it received 70 points, but ISBE only had enough funds to get through Prevention Initiative applications scoring over 77 points.) You can see the scores for all the applicants here. It would cost about $20 million to fund the programs in this category.

And finally, a third group of programs are the ones that did get funded. Many of these applicants wrote grants based on what they needed to run a world-class program, with the best evidence-based practices. ISBE awarded these applicants a cost-of-living bump from their last grant, but none got the sort of funding increase they sought. If the requested amounts had been fully funded, it would have cost $170 million.

In a bit of good news, yesterday ISBE announced that, the agency is working with the Department of Human Services to find the $20 million needed to fund all the qualified programs (the ones scoring over 60).

There’s no easy solution to any of this as long as we continue to underfund early childhood.

I’ve heard some suggest that early childhood funding should flow through a formula instead of through competitive grants. In fact, during the school funding reform debate, some early drafts moved early childhood funds into the main funding formula. The most obvious problem with this approach is that formula funds go to school districts, while about one-third of early childhood providers are non-profit organizations, which don’t get formula dollars.

There are other questions too, like whether the quality of programs funded would be impacted and whether funds would be used for other purposes if they were added to the main formula. The Professional Review Panel, created in the school funding bill, met for the first time last month and created a subcommittee on early childhood issues. I’m guessing that will be the most immediate place for the formula vs. grant conversation, and I’m also hopeful that the panel will discuss what “adequate” early childhood funding looks like so that we can also put Illinois on the path to fully funding the needs for all of our young children.

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