Letter to the State: Early Learning Opportunities in ESSA

May 6, 2016

Dr. Michael Kirst
President, State Board of Education
1430 N Street, Suite 5111
Sacramento, CA 95814

Hon. Tom Torlakson
State Superintendent of Public Instruction
1430 N Street, Suite 5602
Sacramento, CA 95814 

Re: May 2016 Agenda Item #5, Update on Every Student Succeeds Act State Plan Development

Dear President Kirst and Superintendent Torlakson:

We represent policy, advocacy and education organizations concerned about improving public education for California’s young children and committed to promoting high-quality early learning for the state’s diverse child and student populations. We appreciate your thoughtful leadership in creating a coherent system of continuous improvement and working to align state and federal support in a manner that promotes local efforts to close achievement gaps, improves outcomes for children, and builds educator capacity to work effectively with California’s diverse population. New provisions in the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) explicitly recognize the value of early learning and call for evidence-based interventions as part of school improvement efforts. As you develop the state’s implementation plan for ESSA, we recommend that it reflect the import of high-quality early learning in furthering local efforts.*

Investments in early learning are smart investments; decades of research show proven benefits of high-quality programs not only for children and their families, but also for communities, employers, and the nation. By supporting early childhood programs that serve at-risk children, the state can continue to narrow achievement gaps, reduce state spending on remedial education and criminal justice costs, and drive children’s success both as students and as self-sufficient and productive adults. ESSA sets a clear expectation that schools must raise the achievement of all their students, but California has substantial room for improvement on meeting this goal. Currently only 34 percent of the state’s African American 3rd graders read at grade level. This number is also low for Latino (33%) students, low-income children (33%), and English learners (18%).** By boosting children’s cognitive, linguistic and social-emotional skills, quality early learning is the scaffold to helping school districts fulfill their LCFF goals. Prioritizing investments in early education now will help children meet academic benchmarks later. 

We are writing to provide recommendations on how the state can use provisions in ESSA to improve coordination between the pre-kindergarten and K-12 systems. The recommendations are consistent with state and local priorities reflected in the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) and in Local Control Accountability Plans (LCAPs). ESSA gives California an opportunity to drive greater emphasis on the importance of education in the early years and make progress in meeting school readiness goals, especially for children from low-income families, English learners and other designated LCFF subgroups.

Early learning is clearly acknowledged throughout ESSA and state and local agencies can, or are required to, incorporate early education programs in their implementation of key titles and provisions. We respectfully request that as you consider the important decisions before you on ESSA you initiate three practical steps:

  1. Incorporate, where appropriate, early learning opportunities outlined in ESSA into the state’s implementation plan;

  2. Disseminate a Dear Colleague letter to Local Education Agencies (LEA) and early childhood providers to increase awareness of early learning opportunities in ESSA and how these opportunities can advance strategies that are aligned to district and county LCAP goals; and

  3. Brief the California Practitioners Advisory Group (CPAG) on early learning opportunities in ESSA so that its members have the benefit of this information as they advise the Department of Education and the State Board on ways to proceed with the state plan.

As California develops its plan and conducts stakeholder sessions, as required by law and as critical to ensuring that key decisions are made collaboratively, we strongly encourage you to seek input from a diversity of early education stakeholders, including site directors, teachers, parents, Resource and Referral networks, First Five County Commissions, advocacy and research organizations, and civil rights, family, and community groups.

Below we outline our recommendations to promote early learning and strengthen the pre-kindergarten through grade 3 learning continuum. In addition, in the attached matrix we outline a number of ESSA early learning opportunities that would benefit LEAs, which we encourage you to include in a Dear Colleague letter.

Title I, Improving the Academic Achievement of the Disadvantaged, Part A

Title I funding represents opportunities for greater local coordination with early childhood programs, for high-quality programs aligned with Head Start performance standards, and for smoothing school transitions for preschool students. Within Title I, we encourage the state to consider the following recommendations:

  • Identify and disseminate information on promising practices of alignment of early childhood and K-12 systems, including family engagement, that are already occurring in California to help LEAs and early childhood education providers craft evidence-based programs tailored to local needs.

  • Develop and disseminate regulations and/or guidance to help deepen districts’ understanding of coordination requirements and the new Head Start performance standards.

  • Support and strengthen data infrastructure and practices to enable transfer of children’s information and school reports from early education programs to elementary programs, and coordinate with local programs enrolled in California’s Quality Rating and Improvement System.

  • Identify and include provisions for an early childhood accountability indicator in the state’s accountability system.

Title II, Preparing, Training, and Recruiting High-Quality Teachers, Principals, and other School Leaders Part A: Supporting Effective Instruction

Title II allows the inclusion of early educators and school leaders in state and local professional development plans, and ensures effective literacy instruction for young learners. State agencies may also use Title II funds to update certification and licensing systems. California has provided significant resources to LEAs to support K-12 educator effectiveness and capacity building. However, support for professional development that includes preschool and other pre-kindergarten staff lacks similar support. As a result, efforts are inconsistent and do not have a sustained source of funding. As plans for the use of Title II are crafted, we encourage the state to address opportunities and resources for early learning efforts and to consider the following recommendations:

  • Facilitate sharing research-based, effective professional development practices that bring pre-kindergarten through grade 3 teachers, principals, staff, and program leaders together for joint professional learning and collaboration.

  • Update and align certification and licensing standards for early childhood educators, including administrators, working with young children from pre-kindergarten through grade 3.

  • Direct the maximum allowable grant under the Literacy for All program toward boosting opportunities for literacy for the state’s young learners.

Title III, Language Instruction for English Learners and Immigrant Students

Early education provisions in Title III focus on improving school readiness and school transitions for English learners (ELL) and immigrant students, including from early childhood programs to elementary school. Within Title III, we encourage the state to consider the following recommendations:

  • Identify the models and best practices to support high-quality early childhood programs for ELLs, including family and community engagement strategies.

  • Identify the models and best practices to support ELL transitions from preschool to elementary school, and invest in promising programs at both the state and local levels.

Title IV, 21st Century Schools, Place-Based Early Learning

Title IV includes opportunities to improve the state’s early education system through subgrants focused on place-based early learning services and includes a provision targeted to charter schools. Within Title IV, we encourage the state to consider the following recommendations:

  • Use the charter school provisions of Title IV to target investments to schools that serve early childhood and elementary school students.

  • Support local efforts to invest in evidence-based community learning programs that serve young children and their families, including Promise Neighborhoods and Full-Service Community Schools.

Title IX, Preschool Development Grant

Title IX authorizes $250 million each fiscal year from 2017 to 2020; representing new opportunities to support strategic planning for high-quality early learning; encourage partnerships to deliver Head Start programs; and to maximize parental choice. In the event that funding becomes available, we urge the administration to apply for this critical grant to improve the quality of early education programs across the state, and so that California will be eligible for a subsequent renewal grant.

ESSA provides many exciting opportunities for state and LEAs to support systemic improvements to preparing children for success in school and beyond, goals that are also embodied in LCFF.

We look forward to continuing this dialogue and working with you to create bright futures for the state’s young learners. Thank you for your commitment and leadership in this work.


Deborah Kong President
Early Edge California

Sarah Crow
Senior Vice President
The Opportunity Institute

Kim Patillo Brownson
Director of Educational Equity
Advancement Project

Patty Scripter
State Board of Education Liaison
California State PTA

Marcy Whitebook, Ph.D. Director
Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE) UC Berkeley

Samantha Tran
Senior Managing Director
Children Now

Craig Cheslog
Co-Director & Vice President for California Policy
Common Sense Kids Action

Lisa Kaufman, Ph.D.
Executive Director
Educare California at Silicon Valley

Brian Lee, J.D.
State Director
Fight Crime Invest in Kids California

Moira Kenney
Executive Director
First 5 Association of California

Camille Maben
Executive Director
First 5 California

Kim Belshé
Executive Director
First 5 Los Angeles

Jolene Smith
Chief Executive Officer
First 5 Santa Clara

Michael E. Hanson
Fresno Unified School District

Celia Ayala, Ph.D.
Chief Executive Officer LAUP

Dave W. Gordon
Superintendent of Schools
Sacramento County Office of Education

Richard A. Carranza
Superintendent of Schools
San Francisco Unified School District


For more information please contact:
Andrea Ball, Early Edge California at aball@earlyedgecalifornia.org and Sarah Crow, Leila Rock at The Opportunity Institute at sarah@theopportunityinstitute.org and leila@theopportunityinstitute.org


 * “Pathways to New Accountability Through The Every Student Succeeds Act” available at https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/wpcontent/uploads/2016/04/Pathways_New-Accountability_Through_Every_Student_Succeeds_Act_04202016.pdf. The Learning Policy Institute.

** “Kindergarten Transition” available at https://www.childrennow.org/issue-areas/education/kindergarten-transition/kindergartentransition-cont/ (last accessed April 2016). Children Now