Early readers

Tennessee wants to boost third-grade literacy. Here’s why it’s looking to early childhood education as the answer.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks at a 2017 event in Memphis. (Photo by Caroline Bauman/Chalkbeat)

Calling reading the “equity issue of our time,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Thursday that Tennessee will increase its literacy rates when it improves the quality of its early education programs.

The state has been waging war on illiteracy for years but is zeroing in on pre-K and other early education programs as the best vehicles to get 75 percent its third-graders reading on grade level by 2025. Currently less than half of its students are there.

Beginning this year, the state attached more strings for local districts to receive pre-K funding, tying the amount received to the quality of programming instead of the volume of students.

But McQueen said the state still has a lot to learn about developing young readers, and data is key.

“Before kids get to third grade, we have very little information statewide with whether or not those students are on track,” McQueen said. “We have very little data statewide to know where we should be putting investments.”

The state is seeking to fill that void by working with local leaders to better track its youngest students to determine what’s working best. In Memphis, Porter-Leath is taking the lead in that effort. The nonprofit organization opened a major pre-K center this year to serve as a teacher training hub to bolster the quality of all of the city’s pre-K classrooms.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
From left: Sandra Allen of LeBonheur Center for Children and Parents, Rafel Hart of Porter-Leath, Sharon Griffin of Shelby County Schools, and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

McQueen was part of an early reading panel discussion hosted in Memphis by Tennesseans for Quality Early Education and the PeopleFirst Partnership. The event featured Shelby County Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin, state Rep. Mark White, Shelby County Mayor Mark Luttrell and Tennessee first lady Crissy Haslam, who has championed literacy during her husband’s administration.

Since launching its Read to be Ready initiative last year, Tennessee has invested $30 million in summer reading camps and another $4.2 million in a coaching network to support teachers with literacy instruction.

The stakes are high because reading is foundational to lifelong learning — and is critical to closing the achievement gap.

“When kids are not reading on grade level by third grade, they are four times less likely graduate high school,” McQueen said. “Kids scoring in the lowest proficiency level on literacy almost never catch up. Guess who is in that bottom level? Students who are African American. Students who are Latino. Students with disabilities. Students who are English language learners.”


A fixture in Colorado’s early childhood scene prepares to step back – but not all the way

Preschoolers play at Clayton Early Learning in 2015.

On a Monday back in 2006, Charlotte Brantley arrived in Denver to interview for the top job at Clayton Early Learning.

She was up for a high-profile job in Washington state at the time, but quickly called the recruiter there and said, “Take my name off the list. I think I’ve found my new home.”

That’s how Brantley ended up at Clayton, where she’s spent nearly 13 years leading one of the state’s most visible and influential early childhood organizations.

“I just had this sense that this institution was poised to go to the next place,” she said.

Now, Brantley is preparing to retire, probably sometime next summer.

In addition to running a highly rated preschool and child care program that are part of the national Educare network, Clayton provides training and coaching to other early childhood providers, runs home visiting programs, conducts research and advocates for early childhood causes.

Brantley, who has two adult sons, started her career as a college instructor and preschool teacher in her native Texas. Soon after, she began working on early childhood policy in Texas state government, and later the federal government, as a Clinton administration appointee.

Brantley, 66, sat down with Chalkbeat to talk about the most difficult decision she made at Clayton, her frustration over lagging public support for early childhood programs, and her thoughts on governor-elect Jared Polis.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Your first early childhood policy job was for the state of Texas. What was that like?

I didn’t know a thing about policy but apparently the woman who hired me thought I could learn. When I walked in the door I was handed a piece of legislation that had passed, to say that Head Start, child care and Pre-K should learn to play well together from a policy and delivery standpoint. Nobody had any clue how to do it or what to do. I was handed that and told, “You go implement this.”

You’ve worked in many roles during your career. What’s your experience at Clayton been like?

What I’ve loved about being here at Clayton is everything I’ve ever done, it happens here. The advocacy, the policy … we’re part of Head Start. We’re part of the national Educare network. We get to advocate at the Capitol. We do research and training. It’s been a real highlight of my career to be here.

Can you share an accomplishment from your tenure at Clayton?

We didn’t have any positions that were focused on advocacy work when I came here and now we have a team of two plus myself. I would love to be able to put more money into that. I now have a board that gets it, that our being a player in state-level advocacy is highly valuable to the field at large.

In what you describe as the hardest decision of your tenure, Clayton closed a second child care site in 2017 that had opened a few years before in far northeast Denver. What was the fallout like?

Families were furious with us. It was just a firestorm. We actually had to have extra security on the campus for a while. I understood it. I’ve been a parent of babies too when I was working full time. It’s very stressful. People felt betrayed.

What did the closing say about the broader early childhood landscape?

The fact that we had to close that school is like a canary in the coal mine, that we are not investing enough in early childhood education as a country. We could not sustain that second school. We could have reduced its quality significantly and we were not willing to do that. By that, I mean we could have put more kids in each classroom and had fewer teachers and less qualified teachers and paid them less.

You said you hoped public investment in early childhood programs would have increased further by now. Looking ahead, what’s your outlook?

The voters just said no, again [to Amendment 73, a statewide ballot measure for education]. They said no to Amendment 66, [a 2013 ballot measure for education]. There are bright spots of local communities [raising taxes for early childhood], but until the whole TABOR mindset goes away — and maybe it never will go away in this state — people are not willing to have their taxes raised.

It’s disheartening to me, having been in this field as long as I’ve been in it. And there have been tremendous gains with the amount of public money going into early childhood. But the fact that we’re OK as a country with paying our teachers so little they qualify for food stamps — I don’t want to give them food stamps, I want to give them a better wage so they can afford to go buy food. We shouldn’t make them go through a welfare door to sustain their family.

How do you feel about governor-elect Jared Polis’s plan for universal full-day preschool?

Polis has talked about Pay For Success [financing for preschool]. That’s been done in Utah. I am a little skeptical, I will say. Number one, philanthropy will only agree to pay for something for so long. I don’t know where the money comes to pay them back. I’ll be really interested to see what he does and whether or not, with a [Democratic-majority] state house, he’ll be able to do anything more with that.

What early childhood development do you feel hopeful about?

It’s really the opposite side of the same coin. The fact that we now have a governor who ran on a platform of early childhood. I’m incredibly excited about that. Just the fact that he put that as one of the front-and-center pieces of his platform is awesome because I think it will keep the conversations going until we figure out more viable solutions to all of this.

Why is it so important to ‘figure out’ a way forward on early childhood?

The demographics of the country are changing, both in terms of the backgrounds of people and also the fact that the people who are my age — the Baby Boomers — we’re going to all die out. If you’ve got fewer young people coming into play, what that means is it’s all the more critical that every one of our kids is being given a solid start. A free public education has got to start at birth, for those families who want it.

What do you plan to do after you retire?

I have grandchildren in Florida. I’ll spend more time with them, and I have another son in Houston. Beyond that, I want to go back and learn to do photography again. I have already joined the Rocky Mountain Prep [charter school network] board. There might be another board or two I’m interested in. I’m so passionate about this work, I probably won’t be able to step away 100 percent.

Indiana's 2019 legislative session

Indiana faces a tight budget in 2019, lawmakers say. Will expanding pre-K be in the cards?

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Preschool and kindergarten students at George Washington Carver School 87, a magnet Montessori school in Indianapolis Public Schools.

Nearly every time the state prepares to craft a new two-year budget plan, Indiana lawmakers warn it will be difficult to balance different funding priorities. But 2019 could be especially tough, they say, since the bulk of new revenue could already be earmarked to assist children affected by the opioid crisis.

Extra resources for preschool and teacher raises are among the areas competing for the remaining funds.

“This is going to be a puzzle that we’re going to have to solve together,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma at a panel discussion hosted by the Indiana Chamber on Monday.

Bosma, a Republican from Indianapolis, said the state anticipates about $325 million to $350 million in new revenue for the next two-year budget cycle, which begins in 2019. But, he said, $275 million could potentially be earmarked for the Department of Child Services to help stem its growing caseload and staffing needs in light of Indiana’s opioid crisis.

That leaves little for new projects, such as raising teacher salaries or improving school safety resources, or expansion of existing ones, such as preschool. Half the state’s budget is generally set aside to fund schools and districts, parceled out based on a formula that factors in a school’s demographics, special education needs, and more. For the past few budgets, lawmakers have given modest increases to schools, around 2 percent.

But that doesn’t include preschool, which is funded separately as a line item. Bosma on Monday expressed some uncertainty that the program can be expanded in the way pre-K advocates have called for — requests that have ranged from adding more counties to pushing it statewide. Known as On My Way Pre-K, the program so far has cost $22 million per year and is available in 20 counties. Currently, about 4,000 4-year-olds from low-income families use grants from the program to attend a high-quality pre-K provider of their choice.

“I’m very open to expanding it, as long as the focus is on the people who can’t afford the programs themselves,” Bosma said. “The problem is, this is going to be a more difficult budget year than many are aware of … expanding the program right now might be difficult.”

Republican and Democrat leaders, from the House and Senate, said Monday that they supported an expansion of the state’s preschool program. It’s an issue that has seen broad bipartisan support, with lawmakers approving an increase in 2017.

Gov. Eric Holcomb and state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick have come out in support of expanding access to strong preschool programs, particularly in rural areas and to ensure students are prepared for kindergarten.

In the past, lawmakers have been skeptical about how much to spend on the pre-K pilot program, but each year has seen incremental increases in funding, with the number of counties quadrupling since its start.

Bosma suggested the state might have to look to other funding sources, such as ones at the federal level.

Earlier this year, Indiana applied for a federal Preschool Development Grant, which can be used to conduct a statewide needs assessment and coordinate existing federal, state, and local programs that serve children from birth to age 5, according to the grant description. Up to 40 states and territories will receive awards between $500,000 and $10 million, which are expected mid-December.

Lawmakers have also been in talks about how money could be set aside for raises for teachers and other educators. But it’s unclear how much of a pay hike is on the table or how the dollars would get from the state to teacher paychecks. Bosma said there’d be more details later this week and when lawmakers come back for session to begin in January.