Heritage Foundation analyst warns of risks in taking federal education grant dollars

 In press conferences and in presentations to legislative interim study hearings, Oklahoma’s top public school official, Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi, has defended state involvement with new federal education policy and funding initiatives.

A leading national analyst of education policy development warns that “federal dollars typically come with federal strings.” She also contends that spending taxpayer dollars on “programs of questionable effectiveness doesn’t fall under the banner of conservative reform efforts.”

Lindsey Burke, a senior policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., in Oklahoma City recently to testify on the common core standards under development in the state’s public schools, addressed a wide range of policy issues in a interview with CapitolBeatOK.

Asked if the state might be forced to adopt national standards if it receives a Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) grant, Burke reflected, “The Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge Grants do not appear to require states to adopt national standards the same way the original K-12 RTT grants or No Child Left Behind (NCLB) waivers do. However, it does call for ‘clearer learning standards.’ The idea behind the grants, according to the Department of Education, is to improve and coordinate early education services statewide. And, there is concern about the impact of the program on private pre-school providers.”
Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin has said she wants to receive this federal grant “without creating any new government programs or leaving the state on the hook for additional costs in later years.” Asked to ponder whether it was possible to take the federal money without getting “on the hook” in the ways that concern many of Fallin’s supporters, Burke reflected, “It’s still to be seen what new requirements or costs will result from participation in the ELC grant. But federal dollars typically come with federal strings and reporting requirements, which can create added expenses and headaches for states.”

Superintendent of Public Instruction Janet Barresi has said “investing in early childhood education is a key component of our renewed focus and conservative reforms on literacy and proficiency in core areas like math and science.”

Asked for her views on whether investing in “early childhood education” is a conservative reform, Burke replied succinctly: “Spending precious taxpayer resources on state pre-school programs of questionable effectiveness doesn’t fall under the banner of conservative reform efforts.”
In a commentary she wrote last year, entitled “Race to the Top: Some States Choose Educational Liberty over Temporary Government Safety,” Burke wrote that “a growing number of states have decided not to participate in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top grant program … as it become exceedingly evident that … Washington is becoming increasingly involved in states’ educational decision-making authority.”

CapitolBeatOK asked if that is a danger for Oklahoma if the grant is received. Oklahoma officials insist we’re going to do this “on our own terms.” Burke pondered the simple question: Is this possible? Burke said, “Currently, the biggest danger for Oklahoma is federal intrusion from NCLB waivers and the K-12 Race to the Top grant because of the requirement for states to adopt national education standards and tests. But yes, there is always concern that the more federal money a state accepts, the less educational autonomy the state will have.”

If public comments on the U.S. Department of Education website are any sign, it is clear that many Americans are wary of federal intrusion: private church-based daycares; Christian schools and associations of Christian schools; ministers; the Council for American Private Education; and others have expressed deep worries about the new push for early education.

In a post by a person at Heritage Christian School in Virginia, the concern was expressed this way: “The proposed requirements for the RTT-ELC state that in order for states to be eligible they will have to have a plan to bring all early learning programs (including private and non-regulated) under their improvement system and licensing program. Specifically, the requirements explain that a goal of the state should be that all licensed or state-regulated programs will participate in the improvement plan, and that states should have a ‘licensing and inspection system that covers all programs that are not otherwise regulated by the State and that regularly care for two or more unrelated children for a fee in a provider setting.’ This will inevitably bring the private and faith-based early learning centers and preschools under state and federal government control, even though they do not operate with public funds and already have a strong accountability system in place to ensure the quality of their programs.”
Burke responded to the post, shared by CapitolBeatOK, succinctly, “This is certainly a legitimate concern, particularly that these programs could lead to more regulation of private providers.”

Asked if she sees similarities between the RTT-ELC grant and another federal grant with which Oklahomans are familiar, the $54 million health exchange grant Oklahoma rejected, Burke declined to comment. She said, “I don’t have expertise on the Obamacare waivers.”

At recent interim study hearings, state Rep. Corey Holland of Marlow and others have expressed concern that education policy is increasingly driven by concerns other than schooling. Burke observed, “Low-income children in Oklahoma (and throughout the country for that matter) already have access to ‘free’ taxpayer-funded preschool programs such as Head Start. Federal involvement in trying to further expand access to preschool creates an unnecessary subsidy for middle class and wealthy Americans.”

At recent interim studies, Oklahoma’s role as a “national leader” in provision of preschool for four-year-olds was touted. CapitolBeatOK asked Burke, who analysis data and policies from every corner of the country, if the Sooner State was getting a good return on it’s investment. She responded:

“The Obama administration’s ultimate goal is to encourage states to implement universal preschool for all 3- and 4-year-old children, regardless of family income. But state preschool is a questionable investment for several reasons. Fade out is a common phenomenon with preschool in general, with benefits dissipating by third grade. And, a study by the RAND Corporation found that preschool has few, if any, long-term benefits for middle- and upper-income children.

“Oklahoma has been offering all 4-year-old children the opportunity to attend taxpayer-funded preschool since 1998. Oklahoma spent $139 million on early education in 2008, and spends more than $7,400 per child in preschool.

“Yet, despite this expansive growth in state preschool at considerable taxpayer expense, Oklahoma has not seen improvements in academic achievement as a result. In fact, Oklahoma’s 4th grade reading scores have declined since 1998 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. While numerous factors influence NAEP scores, if state-funded universal preschool was producing all of the benefits proponents claim, it would likely be evident in 4th grade reading scores.”

CapitolBeatOK has submitted to Superintendent of Public Instruction Barresi, in written form, questions similar to those that marked the dialogue with Burke. If the Republican statewide elected official responds, this news website will report her answers.