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Despite R2T loss, optimism for early learning

This article was submitted by William Browning, who was the project manager for the Early Learning Challenge Grant application process.

Once again, Colorado was denied Race to the Top funds – this time for vital funding for the implementation of a plan to improve early childhood learning and development capabilities for high-needs children. While people may spend time debating this loss, there are reasons to be optimistic about Colorado’s ability to dramatically improve early childhood learning capabilities.

Working with the most capable early childhood learning and development leaders across the state, a highly collaborative process was followed to build a realistic and authentic plan. Before sharing some reasons to be optimistic, it’s important to have a basic grasp of the application.

It was aimed at addressing the needs of children and families with high needs. Essentially the plan included activities to improve the quality of the early childhood learning workforce, programs, and facilities with a specific intention of improving both kindergarten academic readiness as well as health and wellness outcomes.

Colorado already has a host of statewide reform efforts and future financial projections are not sufficient. Now we have been declined vital funding for early childhood learning and development which, ironically, could have the most significant academic impact for the future. This is yet another setback for improving quality for our kids.

So why be optimistic?

Committed Leadership: Colorado has leadership focused on early childhood and committed to improving both capabilities and outcomes. This administration, specifically the Lt. Governor and his staff, did something very unique as part of this process. They took time to engage and listen to the local communities, they took time to understand the issues and constraints facing the state, and they included a wide and deep variety of representatives from across the state.

Under this strong leadership, the community came together to provide unanimous support for making early childhood learning a priority. While Colorado has a cohesive and knowledgeable leadership team, the state also has the ability to develop an innovative approach to resolve issues. This will be critical in moving this plan forward without federal funding. It is not an insignificant accomplishment that leadership is finally recognizing the value and importance of early childhood learning.

A Strong Plan: Secondly, there will naturally be those who question the investment in this grant aplicatiobn. The defense is simple: This process moved Colorado forward by several months if not years in terms of developing and building a cohesive early childhood learning plan. A combination of an aggressive timeline with the high stakes accelerated decisions and fostered collaboration that normally would have taken months to produce.

The starting point for the team was a high level framework delivered by the Early Learning Commission. The end point was more than a grant application but a very detailed set of plans derived from listening to the local communities, engaging state and national experts, and ensuring both accountability and sustainability.

Colorado now has a foundational plan to move the state forward – whether producing a model for statewide governance, building a better statewide early learning data system, developing a 21st workforce, or finding ways to improve program quality.

Strong but Flexible Approach: While the plan was written to meet the federal application guidelines, it was designed to be compartmentalized and flexible in case funding wasn’t granted. Some of the funding priorities were simply required by the application – some of these may now be a lower priority moving forward.

Implementation of some of the plans will take longer and there will be discussions on the priorities, but the top priorities within the application can be implemented with less funding or by leveraging existing programs and assets. For example, the governance model can still be implemented without additional funding by reallocating state personnel differently.

In addition, Colorado can use these plans to build effective business cases for private funding requests. The plans have support of both state and local leadership which should accelerate the state’s ability to apply for potential funding.

Opportunity for Better Public/Private Partnerships: It’s evident now more than ever that federal and state funding for early childhood learning and development will likely be limited. Colorado will have to find innovative methods to implement this plan. Working with other states to share the implementation costs may be one strategy necessary but likely will not be totally effective or timely.

Colorado should explore more innovative investments in public/private partnerships. If Colorado businesses are committed to improving education outcomes, investment into early childhood learning may bring the best return. Within the plan, there are clearly ways for the private sector to effectively engage – especially in shared service models, communication and branding, and large system development. With the plan and committed leadership, Colorado has the foundation to introduce and integrate these partnerships into the early childhood learning environment.

In conclusion, while this loss is difficult, the process has been valuable as it has accelerated a high quality plan, engaged leadership and experts, and should result in an excellent foundation for the future. Colorado has the strategy, leadership, capabilities, and the passion to deliver sustainable and meaningful transformation for the kids in this state that need it the most.

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