FUNDING TALKS

Shelby County Commissioners reveal tentative plan to fully fund pre-K for families who can’t afford it

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Shelby County government could add an additional $2.5 million for pre-K for the new fiscal year starting on July 1.

A committee of Shelby County Commissioners floated a new funding plan for preschool on Thursday that would not only fill a gap created by the expiration of a federal grant, but would also provide free pre-K for all in the county who need it.

County government could add an additional $2.5 million for pre-K for the new fiscal year starting on July 1, according to a recommendation from Commissioner Steve Basar.

This would be on top of the $3 million the county — the funding body for local schools — has contributed yearly to pre-K programs, and the increase would add about 300 seats. The recommendation is also $1 million more than what county Mayor Mark Luttrell suggested earlier this month.

But the proposal would also significantly increase the county’s investment in early childhood over time. The county would put $15.1 million toward pre-K during the 2020 year, which would drop to $13.6 annually for 2021.

However, the committee opted to wait a week to approve the recommendation — which would go to a vote before the full County Commission — after Lin Johnson, chief financial officer for Shelby County Schools, told them that the district is considering doubling its funding for pre-K from $2.4 million to $4.8 million.

“We need to synchronize numbers to make sure we’re on the right track,” Commissioner Willie Brooks said. “I’m committed and my colleagues on the commission are committed, but we want to make sure taxpayers understand what we’re trying to do.”

Currently, about 7,420 of the city’s 4-year-olds attend free school programs, and a coalition of nonprofit groups led by Seeding Success has been pushing to maintain — and even grow — the number of free, needs-based pre-K seats in Memphis. The nonprofit group has led the charge to put together the $16 million annually for pre-K seats as part of its $40 million plan to raise the level of early childhood education in Memphis.

The group is hopeful private philanthropy will pick up the remaining $24 million, which will go toward home visitation services, high-quality childcare, and tracking data.

PHOTO: (Stan Carroll/The Commercial Appeal)
County Commissioner Steve Basar (right) discusses a budget item with fellow commissioner Heidi Shafer (left) during the Commission’s budget and finance committee meeting in 2016.

However, the expiration of an $8 million federal grant in 2019 made finding a new source for money even more urgent because the city would lose 1,000 pre-K seats without new dollars. To pay for every child who can not afford pre-K, Memphis would need about 8,400 seats, according to Seeding Success, or $16 million a year.

DeAnna McClendon, director of early childhood for Shelby County Schools, said at the meeting that 2,000 children had requested a seat in a district pre-K classroom, but the district didn’t have space for them. The district provides the vast majority of total pre-K seats in the county — around 7,000.

If Basar’s recommendation is approved, it would put funding well over the $16 million mark by 2020 when combined with the City of Memphis’ contribution.

The city announced earlier this year that it would commit $6 million to pre-K programs — the city’s first major new investment in Memphis classrooms since 2013, when city and county school systems merged. The city would commit $3 million for the 2019 year, but the full $6 million won’t go into effect until 2021.

Basar said he hoped the city would contribute more in the future.

Memphis “is the one getting the limelight, and we’re the ones doing the heavy lifting,” Basar said. “We’re going to be the ones contributing the biggest share. I don’t think that’s fair or right.”

Thursday’s meeting came a day after Shelby County Schools presented its $1 billion budget to the commission for approval. During Wednesday’s talks on the overall budget, Commissioner Heidi Shafer said she wouldn’t support additional pre-K dollars that take away from K-12 funding, which could happen under the recommendation.

“It’s so cute to be able to think well, if we just got them educated in pre-K, then we wouldn’t have to spend as much in K-12,” Shafer, a former pre-K teacher, said Wednesday. “And y’all, that’s a pipe dream.… I don’t want us to take our eyes off the ball of our main focus, K-12.”

But Seeding Success and its partners are banking that more pre-K classrooms will lead to better outcomes for kids.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Mark Sturgis, executive director of Seeding Success, has helped lead the charge for Shelby County’s early childhood education plan.

“We have a significant number of children in poverty,” said Kathy Buckman Gibson, a Memphis business leader on the board of Seeding Success. “We need to ensure they are receiving the level of education needed to be successful, and increasing quality pre-K seats is a way to set them up for success.”

Seeding Success will manage the new funding from the commission, as well as funds from the city and private philanthropy. The majority of the classrooms sustained by new funding would be in Shelby County Schools, but four classrooms in Millington Municipal Schools and 24 classrooms in the state-run Achievement School District would also benefit.

The pre-K committee will meet again on the recommendation June 7 at 10 a.m. It includes members from Seeding Success, Shelby County Schools, and Commissioners Basar, Brooks, Melvin Burgess, Van Turner and Reginald Milton.

Reporter Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.

Planning mode

As lawmakers consider major preschool expansion, Colorado providers want more than just extra seats

PHOTO: Ann Schimke

With Gov. Jared Polis’ proposal for the biggest expansion of Colorado’s state-funded preschool program in its 30-year-history, many early childhood educators are cheering the possibility of 8,200 new preschool slots for at-risk children.

But they’re also asking hard questions about how providers will find the staff and space to create new preschool classrooms, and whether state leaders will reshape the program to broaden its reach and intensity. Suggestions from the field include expanding the definition of at-risk, accepting more 3-year-olds, offering more full-day slots, and rewarding top-rated providers with more money.

These discussions echo debates about preschool quality and access nationally as more state leaders prioritize early childhood education, and as public preschool programs from New York to California attempt massive scale-ups.

Research shows that early childhood programs can produce huge long-term gains for children, particularly those from low-income families. But there’s a caveat: The programs must be high-quality.

In Colorado, Polis’ preschool proposal hinges partly on his plan to offer free full-day kindergarten statewide. That’s because 5,000 of the new preschool slots would be funded with money currently earmarked for full-day kindergarten through a special pool of flexible early education dollars. Lawmakers likely won’t make final decisions on the full-day kindergarten and preschool expansion plans until late spring.

In the meantime, preschool providers are weighing the pros and cons.

One of them is Lynne Bridges, who runs a highly rated preschool designed to look like an old schoolhouse in downtown Pagosa Springs in southwest Colorado. It’s called Seeds of Learning and serves children from tuition-paying families and about two-dozen preschoolers who qualify for public dollars through the Colorado Preschool Program.

While Bridges is thrilled with Polis’ support for early childhood education, she’s frustrated, too, that the state’s preschool program doesn’t recognize top programs like hers with extra funding.

“It’s almost like this high-quality program I’ve created …. It’s my burden,” she said.

Bridges’ program holds a respected national accreditation and also has a high rating from the state through its Colorado Shines rating system. She fundraises constantly to fill the gap between her government allotment and the cost of providing preschool for her at-risk kids — the ones she said have the most to gain from a high-quality program.

“There’s only so much money to be had in a rural community,” Bridges said. “This shouldn’t be me laying awake at night trying to help these families.”

The $111 million Colorado Preschool Program serves about 21,000 preschoolers statewide — most of them 4-year-olds in half-day slots — as well as 5,000 kindergarteners in full-day programs. Most of the program’s slots are offered in public school classrooms, though some are in community-based facilities.

On average, providers get about $4,100 per state preschool slot, though the amount varies based on a district’s size, share of low-income students, and cost of living.

Jennifer Okes, chief operating officer at the Colorado Department of Education, said the state’s finance formula allocates preschools half per student of what’s earmarked for first- through 12th-graders.

That formula doesn’t account for preschool quality, she said.

“I guess you could take preschool funding out of [the Public School Finance Act] and fund it separately. That would be a big statutory change.”

A separate state program that provides subsidies to help low-income families pay for child care works the way Bridges wishes the Colorado Preschool Program did, but it’s governed by a different state department and set of rules.

Leaders in the suburban Westminster school district north of Denver, where three-quarters of preschoolers are funded through the Colorado Preschool Program, said Polis’ proposal fits with the district’s own plans to expand early childhood options.

“I’m all for it,” said the district’s Early Childhood Education Director Mat Aubuchon, of the state preschool expansion. “I’m just curious what latitude we’ll get as districts.”

Aubuchon said if the state funds more slots, he hopes more can be merged to create full-day preschool slots. Currently, state rules allow only a small fraction of slots to be combined.

In addition, he wants more leeway in the state’s primary eligibility criteria, which gives preference children from low-income families, those in unstable housing, or who have speech or social difficulties, among other factors.

“I would like to see a little bit more pre-academic stuff in there,” said Aubuchon.

For example, children likely to be at risk for later reading struggles, based on results from a pre-reading assessment, should be given greater consideration, he said.

Aubuchon said if Polis’ plan comes to fruition, he’d like at least 100 to 150 more state preschool slots — maybe more if districts get additional flexibility to make full-day slots. He said the district will likely be able to find space for additional preschool classrooms.

Christy Delorme, owner and director of Mountain Top Child Care in Estes Park in northern Colorado, would like more state preschool slots, too.

She knows some commercial child care centers aren’t happy about Polis’ preschool expansion plan “because it takes away those paying slots,” but said she thinks it’s a good idea.

“Most parents can’t afford child care,” she said. “The more kiddos we can get into early education programs the better off our society will be.”

Delorme doesn’t have the room for a new classroom at Mountain Top, but like Aubuchon, wants the option to create full-day slots for the children she’s already serving. Currently, the 10 children in half-day slots funded by the Colorado Preschool Program rely on scholarships from a local nonprofit to stay at Mountain Top all day. If they become eligible for full-day state slots, that scholarship money could be rerouted to at-risk 3-year-olds,

One challenge that many preschool providers will face if there’s a sudden influx of new state-funded preschool slots will be hiring qualified staff for new classrooms.

That very problem is what led Bridges, of Seeds of Learning in Pagosa Springs, to cut her program down from four classrooms to three a few years ago. Turnover was high and she couldn’t find reliable substitutes.

With the switch to three classrooms, she also raised wages. Today, a lead teacher with a bachelor’s degree makes about $22 an hour, competitive pay in a community where her workers sometimes used to leave for jobs at the local Walmart. Today, Bridges has no problem with turnover.

Delorme, whose teachers start at $15 to $17 an hour, agreed that the field’s low pay makes it tough to find qualified staff.

“Education in general, it’s hard to recruit, but does that mean I wouldn’t want to expand my program because of that?” she said. “No.”

Race for mayor

How to help Chicago’s younger learners? Mayoral frontrunners skip a chance to say.

PHOTO: Stephanie Wang

The challenge of mending and strengthening Chicago’s network of care and education for its youngest residents defies instant solutions, but four candidates for mayor agreed Monday on one point: The city needs to care for its child care centers rather than imposing more burdens on them.

And the city should include those crucial small businesses, which often anchor neighborhoods, in its growing pre-kindergarten system.

Related: Why Rahm Emanuel’s rollout of universal pre-K has preschool providers worried

At a forum Monday at the University of Chicago on the topic of early childhood education, candidates addressed how city government can stitch together a stronger early learning system. Chicago’s mayoral election is Feb. 26.

Chicago is in the first year of a four-year universal pre-kindergarten rollout, and the city’s next mayor will determine much of the fate of the program. About 21,000 children have enrolled out of an estimated 45,000. And cost estimates are now north of $220 million, much of it federal and state money earmarked for early childhood expenditures. But the mayor can direct how that money is spent.

The forum attracted four candidates: former federal prosecutor Lori Lightfoot, former Chicago schools CEO Paul Vallas, state representative and former teacher La Shawn K. Ford, and John Kozlar, a University of Chicago graduate who, at 30, is the youngest candidate in the race.

Four candidates considered front-runners — Toni Preckwinkle, Susana Mendoza, Bill Daley and Gery Chico — didn’t attend. Nor did six more of the 14 candidates.

All of the mayoral candidates who answered said they would continue to support Chicago’s universal pre-K expansion but did not specify how.

The event was organized by Child Care Advocates United, a statewide alliance of child care providers who banded together four years ago when the state budget crisis was forcing many providers and child care agencies to cut back or close.

The central topic of conversation was how city government can build a stronger early learning system. Several questions revolved around issues faced by for-profit and nonprofit day care owners and preschool operators who are facing teacher shortages, budget pressures, and a churn of students. Some advocates say Chicago’s rollout of universal pre-K has made a operating a difficult business even more tenuous, as they lose children and revenue to Chicago Public Schools.

A Chalkbeat analysis of data published last week showed that public school preschool programs are at 91 percent capacity, while one in five seats at community-run preschools and centers is empty.

The candidates Monday offered different suggestions for alleviating the pressure.

Related: Care about schools? Read Chalkbeat Chicago’s voter guide to the mayor’s race. 

“We have to end this fight between Chicago Public Schools and (community) providers. It is killing an industry,” said Ford, a state legislator who described the budget pressures many providers faced under former governor Bruce Rauner, when Illinois did not pass a budget for more than two years.

A September report from the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, which tracks openings and closures among licensed daycare facilities, shows a loss of 3,400 licensed facilities statewide from 2010 to 2018.

“Chicago Public Schools cannot do (preschool) cheaper, and it cannot do it better,” said Vallas, also a former budget director for the city of Chicago, who has put out a detailed prenatal-to-preschool platform that starts with universal prenatal care and a detailed menu of services and supports for children birth to age 5.

“The challenge with the universal pre-K program that Rahm Emanuel and (schools chief) Janice Jackson rolled out is that there was no engagement with community-based providers,” said Lightfoot, who questioned the timing of the May 2018 announcement just weeks before a Chicago Tribune series cast a spotlight on a pattern of mishandling student sexual abuse cases in the K-12 system. “This program was ill-conceived and rolled out in spring to be a distraction to the sex assault investigation about to be unveiled by the Tribune.”

At the forum, held in the auditorium of the Logan Center for the Arts at the University of Chicago, Vallas also spoke about creating incentives to entice more prospective teachers into the field, including grow-your-own programs that target parents.

He also described a system of startup grants and opportunity zones that would make it easier for new businesses to take root and tax breaks for providers who serve a variety of children well.

Ford advocated pressuring state legislators to increase reimbursement rates to providers, which could be used to increase teacher pay, and setting aside tax-increment financing, or TIF, dollars for early childhood businesses. And Lightfoot talked about converting some of the schools that Chicago has closed into job training and early childhood centers.

“The policy that has been rolled out is not equitable and not sustainable,” she said of Chicago’s universal pre-K rollout. “We need to work in partnership with our communities.”

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