First 5 steps up to lead Gov. Brown’s ‘Race to the Top’ plan

California’s application for a $100 million early learning grant under the latest federal Race to the Top competition is both unorthodox and risky – exactly the kind of plan one might expect from Gov. Jerry Brown.

The application is a third-time entry into the national competition that California has never won.

And virtually from the first of the plan’s 225-pages, the Brown administration clearly indicates to the U.S. Department of Education that if California is selected a winner – the governor will not be adding even a dime of additional state money to support the new early learning project.

Instead, the plan relies on an existing network of preschool programs, many of them operated by First 5 commissions statewide – commissions that are independent and would participate in the new early learning program voluntarily.

It is the patchwork of agencies and boards that makes the California application different and perhaps something that the federal peer review process set up for judging race entries that might prove problematic.

“I support the application, I think it’s unique and it could be very successful – it could be a great model for other states,” said Kris Perry, Executive Director of First 5 California, the statewide oversight organization that helps coordinate the activities of commissions in all 58 counties.

“It’s a great opportunity for the federal government to learn about a different way of doing things,” she said. “(Brown’s plan) is not quite conforming with what federal officials might assume or expect to see, but doesn’t mean it wouldn’t work.”

Created by voter initiative in 1998 and funded with a 50-cent per pack tax on cigarettes, the First 5 program receives close to $500 million annually to promote school readiness and health care among children age five and younger.

Perhaps better known in the mainstream media for ongoing controversies surrounding local indecision over spending – that is, keeping large balances of unspent funds – First 5 sponsors programs that serve more than 1 million children annually, two of which are aimed at preschool students.

But the First 5 structure leaves county commissions almost autonomous when it comes to spending their share of the tax revenue and the shape of local programs. Thus, the centerpiece of Brown’s Race to the Top plan is based on voluntary commitments where decisions on program details will be made locally and at a time uncertain.

But the First 5 early learning programs have been successful.

One, the Comprehensive Approaches to Raising Educational Standards Plus – also called CARES Plus – is aimed at improving pre-K teacher effectiveness through training and technical assistance. The other program, the Power of Preschool, provides free, high-quality preschool classes mostly in low-income neighborhoods.

The teacher development program is in 34 counties. Among other elements, the program utilizes a teacher effectiveness system that offers specific training options based on an evaluation analysis tied to getting students prepared for third grade reading.

The preschool program itself is currently in eight counties – both urban and rural– but all aimed at low-income communities. As structured, the First 5 commissions provide about $40 million a year in funding to community centers and foundations that run preschools, helping them hire highly qualified teachers, provide better facilities and promote health care.

Brown’s Race to the Top proposal would link the two First 5 programs with existing state and federal efforts – including transitional kindergarten that local educational agencies are required to begin operating next fall as the state’s starting age to begin kindergarten is pushed back by legislation approved last year.

The main goal of the federal race competition is to enhance and improve existing preschool programs. Emphasis is placed on states willing to provide a new rating system that can be applied to preschool programs in the hopes of finding weaknesses that can be upgraded.

Because many of the First 5 preschool programs are already engaged in similar rating process, Brown’s plan focused on them as well as a number of other public and private providers that have a potential for serving more than 1 million preschool children.

The hope, state officials said, is that the competition judges will give merit to the fact that the First 5 network has been doing this work for some time already.

Perry said the Brown plan could be viewed as transformative because of its bottom-up approach – something that the Obama administration should be interested in.

“I have a lot of faith in California’s innovation to date, and its strong leadership to carry it,” she said. “I feel really good about it and the group that worked on it involved in the drafting. I felt it was one of the most outstanding efforts I’ve seen in state government in the whole time I’ve been here.”

Ed’s Note: Cabinet Report is dedicated to covering K-12 education issues in California. To subscribe, visit: Selected stories have been shared with Capitol Weekly with permission from School Innovations & Advocacy, owner and publisher. To contact reporter Tom Chorneau:

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