OSSE’s budget robs the cradle

Last week, the D.C. Council held a hearing on the budget for the Office of the State Superintendent for Education. This was after the agency held a public briefing session for advocates and providers on to answer questions about its budget. Unfortunately, very few of our questions were answered in either of these public forums. (Read our testimony.)

OSSE’s budget is filled with things that just don't add  up.

For instance, on one hand, the line item for child care subsidies increased by $9.9 million, while the line item for out-of-school time was zeroed out. We were told at the briefing this increase is due largely to the transfer of $8.5 million from the out-of-school time line item. But we were assured at both the briefing and the hearing that the intent of the funding would remain the same. In other words, it would not go toward child care subsidies, but before-school, afterschool and summer programs.

So why transfer the money in the first place? We have not gotten a satisfactory answer.

At the same time, the funds actually going toward child care subsidies would be reduced by $2.2 million.

Are you as confused as we are? How can one line item show a net increase and decrease at the same time? The only way it can be explained – and this seems to be OSSE’s response – is that the name of the budget line is meaningless. The funds to be appropriated under child care subsidies will be allocated as OSSE sees fit.

Superintendent Hosanna Mahaley and her staff explained that the reduction in funding for subsidies reflects a continuing trend that OSSE has been seeing in recent years: Parents are opting to send their children to free preschool and Pre-K programs at DCPS and public charter schools. While we have also seen this trend, it doesn’t justify shifting funding away from community-based programs. First of all, DCPS and charters only serve children ages 3 and up. What about infants and toddlers?

Subsidies help ensure that low-income parents can work while children are developing the early learning skills required to succeed in kindergarten. There is a critical shortage of infant and toddler slots in child care centers in low-income communities – Wards 5, 7 and 8 – where there is also the greatest need. These wards have the highest concentrations of children under 4 as well as the highest child poverty rates in the city, accounting for nearly a third to a half of all children.

Meanwhile, Superintendent Mahaley assured us at the hearing that “there will be no impact on these children.” How can that be? We are still waiting for an answer.

Finally, the budget also includes $1.7 million for Pre-K expansion, as mandated by the 2008 law (which was subtantially amended in 2010) to ensure that every 3- and 4-year-old in the District has access to free preschool and Pre-K by 2014. However, Mayor Gray has said several times that we have already reached universal Pre-K – four years ahead of schedule. (We know in fact, that there are some 1,400 children currently waitlisted for Pre-K, according to DC Public Schools.) So how can we justify more spending on Pre-K while reducing funds for infants and toddlers?

It is unclear how OSSE’s budget fits Mayor Gray’s vision for improving infant and toddler care. In fact, it’s the definition of robbing the cradle.

While we support the need to improve quality in early care and education across the board – through professional development, standards, and support for best practices – we certainly don’t think it makes sense to limit capacity. By decreasing subsidies for infant and toddler care, we are ensuring that fewer children will enter preschool and Pre-K with the critical social-emotional and developmental skills they need to succeed.