Original Source | Oregonian
By Betsy Hammond, Monday February 6, 2012
Beth Nakamura/The Oregonian
Ashley VanLanen plays with her 23-month-old son Jackson during his first day at Family Stepping Stones child development center in Gladstone. VanLanen says workers at multiple agencies have made it easy for her to navigate the system and get help for her son, who has cerebral palsy.
Gov. John Kitzhaber wants sweeping changes in early childhood programs in Oregon to make them better coordinated, easier for the neediest families to access and more focused on preparing youngsters for kindergarten.
But he and his advisers are starting small, with a bill in this month's legislative session that focuses on how Oregon spends $5 million a year -- about 1 percent of the roughly $400 million Oregon devotes each year to early childhood programs.
The bill would abolish the Oregon Commission on Children and Families and 36 county-level commissions, concentrating power in the governor's new Early Learning Council.
It calls for schools to measure and report on the readiness of all kindergartners by fall 2013. It also would require the new council to come up with a plan by this fall to change the way the state funds programs for young children and their families -- a potentially momentous step that could be enacted as soon as 2013.
The prospect of big changes driven by new players has spurred opposition from providers of the most robust child development program in Oregon, Head Start. Though Kitzhaber puts a higher priority on early childhood issues than recent predecessors, including himself, and helped secure a $16 million increase in state funding for Head Start this budget cycle, Head Start leaders are wary.
Bruce Ely/ The Oregonian/2010
John Kitzhaber visits with Nigel Wehling at Helen Gordon Child Development Center. He wants more Oregon children to get high-quality preparation for kindergarten.
"We are concerned about being put into a large group of programs and to have, perhaps, our funding merged into a pot that is distributed to other programs," said Judy Miller, executive director of the Oregon Head Start Association. "We feel we are serving the children most in need, and we really want to keep our program intact."
Every year, 42,000 children start kindergarten in Oregon. The state's high child poverty rate leads officials to believe as many as 15,000 arrive unprepared to dive in and learn fast enough. Children unready for kindergarten take extra money to educate and are likely to drop out of high school -- a huge problem in a state where the on-time graduation rate is 67 percent.
As is true in his own field of medicine, the governor believes that preventing and solving education deficits early will be cheaper and more effective than waiting until kindergarten.
The Early Learning Council, appointed by Kitzhaber five months ago, has big ideas for making that happen, said its chairwoman, Pam Curtis, deputy director of Oregon Health & Science University's Center for Evidence-based Policy.
Those include screening all Oregon babies at birth, 9 months, 18 months and age 3 to detect whether they are reaching milestones; making it easy for families to navigate programs; evaluating every kindergartner's readiness, to find the gaps; and having every state-funded program, including health, nutrition and parenting programs, focus on and report school-readiness results.
New "regional hubs"
But the practical changes in House Bill 4165 are much smaller and less certain to deliver improvements.
The bill would require the state to define levels of quality in child-care programs and make the ratings public so parents are informed and providers know what's needed to get a better rating.
In place of county commissions on children and families, the bill calls for creating a couple dozen "community-based coordinators of early learning services," also called regional hubs. The idea is that different groups or agencies will step up in different parts of the state to coordinate local early childhood services, a little bit of which they would fund but most of which they might not.
The biggies would, for now, remain under their current budgetary and regulatory control: The Oregon Department of Education runs Head Start and early childhood special education programs; county health departments operate the supplemental mother and child nutrition program known as WIC; and the Department of Human Services controls day-care subsidies for low-income working mothers.
But the regional hubs would have at least a nominal role in coordinating those programs, which together account for more than 85 percent of the state budget for early childhood services. The 2013 Legislature will decide whether the hubs get partial or direct financial control of those major programs, said Duke Shepard, Kitzhaber's point man on early learning changes.
The entities that offer to become regional hubs might be nonprofits, education service districts, county agencies or community colleges, Curtis said. "Communities will self-organize and select" their hubs, she said. "We're not going to pick. We don't think that we understand local culture and politics well enough."
Together the hubs would receive about $5 million a year that now goes to pay employees of county children commissions to write plans and get community input. The hubs would have to spend 85 percent of that money to provide direct services, keeping 15 percent for administrative costs.
Shepard acknowledges that $5 million a year isn't much, but "it's money you can move that doesn't affect any direct services to children" and is enough to "provide a smidgen of direct service."
Has this worked before?
Ron Herndon, director of Albina Head Start, which serves almost 700 youngsters in Portland, is highly critical of the plans. He said the changes are not shown by research or another state's experience to work, and he thinks the key architects, including the governor, Curtis and Shepard, are unqualified to remake early childhood programs.
By contrast, he said, Head Start is proven to work and backed by research.
Of Early Learning Council members, he asks, "Do they have a successful, verifiable track record of redesigning a system of social services? If not, they should not be on the commission," he said. "Everyone is so excited about new measurements for children. Where is the measurement, the evidence, that this idea has ever worked anywhere?"
Ashley VanLanen, a 20-year-old single mom in Clackamas, said the current system has worked well for her 23-month-old son, Jackson. Her food stamps case worker at the county, a visiting nurse from another agency and the free child development program where she recently enrolled Jackson two mornings a week all have made it easy for her to find and access programs, she said.
"My son needs the help, so I do anything and everything I can in my power to get it for him," she said. "So far, it's worked out great."
Shepard acknowledged that much about how regional hubs will form and operate is undetermined, which makes some uneasy. The Early Learning Council and 2013 Legislature will add specificity before the hubs take over in July 2013, he said. "The challenge will be over the next year to figure out the way to make this happen," he said.
The overarching emphasis, he said, will be to focus on results that get children ready to learn in kindergarten and to read by first grade. Other states, including Washington, are far ahead in coordinating and measuring programs. Curtis said she expects few changes to Head Start. But she said the state's $60 million in yearly child-care subsidies for low-income working parents is ripe for change, as there are no minimum education standards for the care those children receive.
She also said the council plans to push to get services in short supply to the neediest children, including children of color, children already on the state's radar such as those in foster care, and those in poverty.
For $400 million a year, Oregon should be seeing more children arrive at kindergarten primed to learn, she said. The state knows that 20 percent of kindergartners got at least a year of Head Start, but it can't say how many get at least some state-funded services or whether such programs work.
"We can't say what that buys us in terms of outcomes for society or even outcomes for an individual child," Curtis said. "Everybody we talk to acknowledges we are getting unsatisfactory results for the work we are doing and the resources we're using."