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So How Did California Win an ELC Grant, Anyway?

When ELC grant winners were announced last month, California's win was one thing that had a lot of folks scratching their heads. How, folks asked, can a state with California's budget woes, that lacks a fully operational statewide QRIS, that just got ruled out for Round 3 of Race to the Top and had to return a federal grant to build out its data systems be a winner in this competition?

I took a look at the scoring results to find out. The primary answer is that California made good choices in the 3 "focus areas" of ELC (where states could choose among a menu of items to address), maximizing its scores in these areas. California scored more total points in the 3 focus areas than any other state: 125 out of 140 total. That made up for its relatively weak showing in the "core" areas--those that all states had to address, including state's past track record and commitment to early childhood and QRIS systems. Had the grant been awarded based on core area performance only, California would have come in 17th, ruling it out for funding, and it ranked 20th among states on the QRIS component.

California's performance on the focus areas was due in part to savvy choices about what components to address: It selected only 2 out of 4 items in "Section C" of the application--and scored very well on both the Standards and health promotion items that it addressed. California's early learning standards received near perfect marks, higher than any other state, and only three states garnered a higher percentage of possible points on the health promotion item. For the other two focus areas, dealing with workforce (Section D) and data (section E), California addressed only 1 of 2 possible items, again playing to its advantage to maximize points. Critically, for Section E, it chose to focus on kindergarten entry assessment and did not cover data systems--which would certainly have been a weakness for the state.

The state also did a good job of presenting its track record in the strongest possible light, enabling it to get more points in those areas than many observers might have predicted.

Now, California's win raises two big questions:

First, because of the way the scoring fell out relative to the amount of funding available, California's award will actually be significantly smaller than what the state requested. But the scores its application received were based on what it said it would do with the full amount of funding. Which components of the state's application will go by the wayside now, and how much does that undermine the plans for which reviewers rewarded them with points?

Second, is this grant still a good deal for California, given the state's ongoing budget woes and the reduced amount of funding it receives from the feds? These grants asked states to do a lot of things, and I'm not at all sure that Tennessee and Louisiana, which would likely have been strong contenders particularly in light of what we saw in the scoring, didn't make the right choice to sit this one out, due to sustainability concerns. What's the chance that the state ends up having to give up this grant as it did the data grant?

(Disclosure: I advised other states (but not California) on their ELC applications).

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