CA’s RTTT early learning program wins feds’ support for additional funds

California's effort to improve early learning programs, supported by a Race to the Top grant, has received a rare sign of support from the Obama administration after completing its first year - news of a pending supplemental grant expected to be about $22 million.

The initiative, launched in 2011 with a firm caveat from Gov. Jerry Brown that no additional state money would be available to support the operation, has nonetheless successfully organized the state's broad array of sponsors and service providers under a new state umbrella charged with improving the quality of early learning programs, especially those serving high-needs students.

The primary accomplishment of the first year has been to get a loose network of 17 regional leadership consortia" from 16 counties to agree on a set of research-based indicators common to quality service.

From there, a rating system was developed that will be used to evaluate preschools and child care centers statewide. Some of that review has already taken place and program sponsors are working with state agencies on helping providers meet the new, more demanding benchmarks.

Soon, program architects say, the results of the evaluations - the ratings themselves - will be shared with the community.

Sarah Neville-Morgan, who is helps oversee the Race to the Top grant for the California Department of Education, said that the program is very close to fulfilling its mission - helping establish higher quality programs and helping inform parents about where to seek care and instruction.

"We are close - but the first step is for the consortia to engage the program and get everyone to feel comfortable with it because it's all voluntary," she said.

"So these providers are signing up to be rated and that can be a little bit challenging," she said. "Our goal is to then improve their quality, so we are looking at how we can provide them the targeted technical assistance and support based on the areas where they need improvement. And all programs can use support to continuing improving."

Given the state's disappointing history with the Race to the Top program, not many around the Capitol gave the early learning application much chance of winning three years ago.

California had already lost twice during the Schwarzenegger years in the higher stakes competition that offered hundreds of millions of dollars to the winners. Brown's admonition that the state could not afford to take on any new programs - something clearly stated several times on the application documents - also seemed likely to hamstring the proposal.

Instead, California won $52.6 million in August, 2011 for the program - an award that was far less than the $100 million requested.

The novel approach would build on the state's already significant number of preschool programs - the backbone of which came from the First 5 commissions, a child and family support network created by the passage in 1998 of a tobacco tax measure.

The leadership consortia today helps provide care to almost 1.9 million children, or 70 percent, of the state's population under the age of five. The counties include: Alameda, Contra Costa, El Dorado, Fresno, Los Angeles, Merced, Orange, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, San Joaquin, Santa Barbara, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz, Ventura and Yolo.

Cecelia Fisher-Dahms, administrator of CDE's Quality Improvement Office, said that about 74 percent of the grant money has been spent at the local level mostly to help preschools and child care providers make the transition to meet the higher standards.

"We had to decide what would be commonly rated quality among all of them," she said. "We had to utilize the framework described in California's application to determine how would you rate programs - similar to the five-stars that are given to restaurants."

Part of the challenge is that California's program is designed as voluntary, where local officials have a lot of latitude. At the same time, however, the federal grant required that the core of the rating system have elements common to all participants.

As a result providers will be rated consistently county to county - but how those results get communicated with parents will likely differ. Some communities are looking at a report card-style system; other ideas are being considered too.

Each community will also decide when the rating system will go public. The emphasis right now is on giving providers the support they need to make improvements.

Consortia members have also been successful in attracting philanthropic support - including the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Buffet Early Childhood Fund and the California Endowment.

Officials said they expect to hear soon more details about the supplemental Race to the Top grant and have not yet made plans about how to spend that money.

To learn more about the early learning program visit: http://www.cde.ca.gov/sp/cd/rt/