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LA makes wise call to work on programs, pass on grant

Today is the deadline for states to enter the third round of the federal government’s Race to the Top education grant program, this focused on early childhood learning. Louisiana, as it appears another dozen states will do (four because they did not qualify by accepting a specific kind of programmatic funds related to the oxymoronic Affordable Health Care Act), said it will defer. Despite some predicting that the state would have a good chance of success in winning up to $60 million, reasons for passing on it seem well-founded.

Over the past several years, funding has increased in the state for programs related to early childhood education, or that which occurs prior to kindergarten. But whether it has done much good, or as much as it should have, is itself a campaign issue in this fall’s elections for at least one prominent interest group that argues the system’s lack of coordination hurts the state, which ranks 14th in expenditures among the states. It, as did the Commission on Streamlining Government in 2009, recommends reorganization of the ECL system focused on a single system with high early learning standards and accountability measures. RTT-ECL addresses in particular the latter goal.

Thus, the problem for the state not only was to get together an application in less than two months, but also to spell out how major changes would be made in the state’s delivery system to begin at the start of next year.
In addition, acceptance of the grant would require the state to continue to operate the new system at a higher level of funding after the federal money goes away after four years.

As a result, Louisiana faced big challenges in planning for and implementing a system that would give it a good shot at winning the funding and then to sustain it. These include:

Assessment. While the eventual rules for the program placed less emphasis on assessment by standardized exam that those initially proposed, they still would require for Louisiana the creation of a common assessment (and it automatically would lose points for not having one at present), which would involve figuring out how to take the present, different methods and aligning them to the models set out in the program.

Coordination. Having no state agency coordination, besides its current inefficiency, also is a problem with the RTT-ECL program, which essentially would require that, meaning the state would have to show now how that would be done, then try to get the Legislature to go along with that in the future with forfeiting funding at risk if awarded the grant but the Legislature did not adopt those changes.

Additional, costly expenses. To win, the state may have to demonstrate how it would expand ECL to child care providers, and for overall costs the most critical, absolute factor identified by the program is to increase readiness for high needs children, such as those from low income households and the disabled, so given the state’s relative high proportion of these kinds of children, a winning plan would commit the state to much higher expenses after the grant runs dry.

Therefore, it makes sense that state policy-makers would try first to reorient the system before taking on substantial new challenges that would commit the state to much higher costs. By increasing efficiency and effectiveness first, that template may be expanded at reduced cost at a pace the state can afford, with more flexibility to tackle expansion and improvement. This sensible and measured approach does more good that grasping at money just because it’s available.

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