New grant will continue the expansion with a focus on high-quality care options in Kent and Sussex counties, areas with a continued need for high-quality infant and toddler care and holistic services, such as health and nutrition.
Daniel Sato/The News Journal
Officials say a $7.65 million, five-year grant will not only expand early childhood education in Delaware but help low-income families with young children access housing, food and job support.
Gov. John Carney and Secretary of Education Susan Bunting announced the grant Thursday during a visit to the Latin American Community Center’s early childhood center in Wilmington. The preschool program is one of several funded by a similar 2015 grant.
Both target early learning opportunities for children from low-income families, Bunting said. But while the first grant supported such placements statewide, this new grant will continue the expansion with a focus on high-quality care options in Kent and Sussex counties, areas with a continued need for high-quality infant and toddler care and holistic services, such as health and nutrition.
“These are areas in our state that still have great need,” Bunting said.
The money will support children from birth to 3, she added, and was awarded as part of the federal Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership. Integrated into the grant is support for three programs — Delaware Stars, federal Early Head Start and Delaware’s Purchase of Care program — which will benefit from more stabilized funding, teacher education dollars, infant-toddle classroom materials and playground equipment.
Grant money will also be used to provide wraparound health and parent services for children from low-income families, such as developmental, nutrition and dental assessments, referrals to services and home visits.
“It’s a big deal,” Carney of early childhood funding on Thursday. “Because it’s among the best investments we can make for our children.”
“If we don’t get kids by 3 or 4 years old, we miss the opportunity to get those kids.”
Funding early childhood programs
Carney said that’s one of the reasons he included early childhood education in the “shared sacrifice” budget proposal he released last month.
He suggests funding early childhood in Delaware at its current levels — $4.7 million — though that doesn’t provide for new growth.
When it comes down to it, the funding can only go so far. Federal dollars have long paid for services above and beyond what individual states can provide — and in fact, federal grants make up roughly 75 percent of public money spent on early childhood education countrywide, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
The U.S. government helps fund vouchers and other subsidies so that eligible families can afford child care, Head Start programs, staff salaries and professional development, licensing and monitoring, ranking systems, early intervention services, preschool programs for children with disabilities and more.
But it’s difficult to say just how much money will be available under the Trump administration, which has already proposed massive Department of Education and Human Service cuts. In fact, early proposals have the federal government getting out of the universal pre-K business, and shifting existing early childhood expenditures, including those for Head Start, to tax credits and cash transfers that go directly to families versus the state.
Secretary Bunting said she is optimistic the federal government will continue to fund early childhood and Head Start programs, and the state will be able to apply for additional grants as the years go on. She didn’t say what would happen if it didn’t.
Maria Matos, president and CEO of the Latin American Community Center, on the other hand, talked like there was no other option than maintaining current funding levels.
“He’s not going to do it,” she said of President Trump making threatened cuts. “There’s no way. The country, I don’t care if they’re Republicans or Democrats, they’re not going to let him destroy this country.”
Why early learning is important
The case for early learning is rooted in research that suggests much of the human brain develops before kids are even old enough to enter kindergarten. Children who don’t pick up important skills at those early ages are at a huge disadvantage by the time they start school.
Delaware has poured millions of dollars over the past few years into efforts to get more kids, especially those from at-risk families, into good early learning centers. Preschools within the top two tiers of the state’s early childhood rating system get bigger reimbursement for serving low-income students.
As a result, the percentage of low-income children in the “Delaware Stars” program increased from 5 percent in 2011 to 76 percent of children 0-5 and 78 percent of all children in 2016, according to Carney’s office.
The number of 5-star programs statewide increased from 24 in 2012 to 203 as of January. The highest rating a preschool can receive is five stars, and the Latin American Community Center’s early childhood program, La Fiesta, is now in that upper echelon.
“When we started here 22 years ago, we were babysitting,” Matos said. “We were babysitting. And there’s a difference between babysitting and education.”
Thanks to grants and support for teachers, that has changed, she said. Today, 80 percent of La Fiesta kindergartners are proficient in both English and Spanish, Matos, likely due to the childcare center’s language immersion and dual language classes.
Many of the center’s students are low-income, she added, before praising both the state and federal government for supporting efforts to get disadvantaged kids ready for schooling.
“If they’re poor, they need an early start if they’re going to succeed,” she said. “And we’re going to give it to them.”
Contact Jessica Bies at (302) 324-2881 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessicajbies.