As education budgets tighten, Louisiana has declined to apply for federal preschool dollars, citing the added regulations as too high a cost.
The national government recently released a list of the 36 states eligible to apply for Race to the Top—Early Challenge, which will allocate $70 million to three to eight states over four years.
Louisiana made the cut, but the state’s Department of Education (DOE) decided not to apply for the maximum $11 million the state could receive.
“Federal grant funding has recently become a flashpoint for those concerned about overreach in Louisiana schools,” explained state Superintendent John White in a public letter. White points out the grant would not fund additional preschool seats.
Concerns over student data tracking, dependency on grant money, and a gubernatorial administration critical of President Obama’s education program all seemed to be major factors in the decision, said Kevin Kane, president of the Pelican Institute for Public Policy.
The DOE would not provide further comment on the topic.
State Plans Take Precedence
Over the past few years, Louisiana has invested time and money in its own preschool plan, White said.
“Louisiana is already unifying its early childhood system by creating statewide expectations for the development of all young learners,” White wrote. “Centers and schools participating in 15 Early Childhood Network Pilot districts have come together to measure children’s progress against these expectations and to improve classroom teaching. Soon networks will begin unified enrollment processes to ensure that all low-income four-year olds are in a quality early childhood education program.”
The pilots are the first step of 2012’s Louisiana Early Childhood Act. White said the DOE used $5.2 million to support the pilots.
Long-Term Funding Concerns
Preschool “has been a pretty high [state] priority,” Kane said. “From their standpoint, we’ve created this pilot, invested a lot of political capital to revamp our preschool programs, so we don’t want to do something which could then hamper the program.… [Federal money] would come with strings attached, and it would interfere with what we’re doing.”
The federal grant would provide seed money for programs that would cost far more to sustain in the long run, said Lisa Snell, director of Reason Foundation’s child and education studies.
“The cost to the states long-term is really, really expensive,” she said.
“Preschool is so confusing, more than any other sector—there are really all these competing federal government streams,” Snell said. “If a state is already far down the line developing their own cost-effective program like Louisiana is trying to do,… enrolling in these federal programs may put them on the hook later or increase their costs.”
More Money, Please
Education’s Next Horizon worked closely with the state on its preschool plan. The organization has voiced disappointment at the DOE’s decision not to apply for the Early Challenge grant.
In the first round of Race to the Top—Early Challenge, Education’s Next Horizon was part of a team working on the application before it was pulled.
“The state DOE has acknowledged there is going to be a need for resources,… technology, training, professional development,” said CEO John Warner Smith. “The grant would have not funded seats,… but there are some funding issues that will have to be addressed. Beyond that the grant would have enabled state-level infrastructure, technology, and professional development. “
Grant money could have reduced one-time implementation costs without affecting long-term sustainability, Smith said.
“The superintendent has acknowledged the needs and has said publicly he’s committed to seeking state funding or funding from other sources to address the need,” Smith said.
‘Greater Risk Than Opportunity’
Recent unease over federal involvement in education has largely come from objections to Common Core national education standards. As Common Core arguments heat up in the state, the DOE has its hands full, Kane said.
“Applying for this grant poses a greater risk than opportunity for Louisiana’s early childhood progress and that a better plan is to sustain state funds for the Network Pilots, to expand the Network Pilots, and to add state funds as we do so,” White wrote.
Image by CamKnows.