Grants Increasing Preschool Access May Lose Funding, Says Administration

Teacher Lory Rehne, left, reads a book with pre-kindergarten student Junior Alvarez at Booth Elementary School in Reno, Nev. on Aug. 27, 2015. (Jason Bean/The Gazette-Journal via AP)Jason Bean / AP

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By Griselda Nevarez

A federal grant program that is expanding preschool access for children living in high-need communities—including Latino and English language learners—is at risk of losing funding, say Obama administration officials.

The government funding bill under consideration by Congress for fiscal year 2016 would cut funding for the Preschool Development Grant program, which is in its second year of existence.

“We should be at a point now where we are doubling down on this investment, not rolling it back,” said Roberto Rodriguez, deputy assistant to President Obama for education. He recently participated in a conference call with early education stakeholders.

Rodriguez said the proposed 2016 fiscal year budget essentially “zeroes out” funding for the grant program at a time when early education is seen as “one of the smartest investments we can make.” The program puts a strong focus on quality preschool programs that fulfill certain criteria including instruction, and ratio of students to teachers.

This comes as the grant program recently awarded a total of $237 million in second-year grants to 18 states so that they can continue expanding access to high-quality preschool for children, many of whom come from low- to moderate-income families, he said.

Rodriguez noted that more than 33,000 children living in high-need communities began attending preschool this fall due to the grants awarded last year, and the second-year grants will enable another 41,000 children to attend preschool next year.

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Illinois is one of the states benefiting from federal grants. Last year it received $20 million, and it has been awarded another $20 million this year. The grant is helping Illinois provide full-day preschool programs to some of the most at-risk children in the state, said Bryan Stokes, preschool expansion policy director at the Governor’s Office of Early Childhood Development.

This year, 3,200 children started attending preschool. Of those more than half are Latinos and English language learners, a population that has been increasing in the state, particularly in the Chicago suburbs.

The state's goal is to have 80 percent of children be fully ready for kindergarten by 2021, said Stokes. But to reach that goal, the state will rely on the federal funds from the federal program.

Related Article: New Tool Kit Helps English Language Learners Access Quality Education

Maryland is another state using the grant funds to focus on areas with large populations of Hispanic and English language learners, according to an official from the state's Department of Education. The state was awarded an additional $15 million this year to expand preschool access. In Montgomery County, schools and community-based programs received a total of $1.5 million to help approximately 260 students access preschool, many of whom are English language learners.

In Virginia, some of the $17.5 million that the state received through the Preschool Development grant program last year was used in Winchester Public Schools to add six new preschool classrooms serving about 108 at-risk children, of whom almost half are English language learners.

Joining Rodriguez on the call was Libby Doggett, the deputy assistant education secretary for policy and early learning. She highlighted some of preschool programs that have been created or improved using grant funds.

“Just as these programs are getting started, they can get shut down,” said Libby Doggett, deputy assistant Education Secretary, who was also on the conference call. She called on stakeholders to continue pressuring Congress so that funding cuts are not made.

“It’s going to take lots of people making the case, and there’s no better case to be made than to really hold up what’s happening in the states right now,” she said.

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