By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 19, 2010; 10:43 PM
Mayor-elect Vincent C. Gray said Friday that the city's financial predicament will not keep his administration from expanding access to infant and toddler care, an initiative he regards as the next step in creating a "birth-through-24 continuum" of public education in the District.
"I know we're in a fiscally challenged era. I didn't miss that," Gray told a spirited gathering of educators at a conference sponsored by Pre-K for All D.C., a nonprofit group focused on promoting early child care and education.
But Gray, in his first major education speech since the Nov. 2 election, said budget pressures also create opportunities to bring new clarity to priorities. A "robust expansion" of infant and toddler care - with a focus on children with special needs or those at risk of developmental delays - is critical to controlling education costs later in life, Gray said.
"Doesn't that make sense? It will reduce the number of children who wind up in special education, sometimes outside of our system, at a huge social and financial cost," Gray said. The District pays an estimated $280 million a year in tuition and transportation costs to support special education students in private schools.
The District spends about $200 million a year in federal and local funds on early childhood programs. A fraction of that, perhaps $10 million to $20 million, goes to infant and toddler care, officials said. During the campaign, Gray cited waiting lists with as many as 6,000 families seeking infant and toddler services.
Gray, who is facing a $175 million gap in the current District budget and as much as a $400 million shortfall before approval of the fiscal 2012 budget next year, did not say how much he thought the city could afford. But after his speech, he said the expansion could be funded in part by more effective use of federal dollars that are currently spread across a series of disparate programs supporting early childhood education. He said the city would also look to private and philanthropic partners for more help.
Gray sees an infant and toddler initiative as a logical extension of his work as D.C. Council chairman, when he played a key role in a $40 million expansion of pre-K slots for 3- and 4-year-olds in the District's public schools, public charter schools and community-based organizations. In September, officials reported that the District had effectively achieved "universal Pre-K" with enrollment of approximately 16,000 children.
Gray said he wanted to see the District's early childhood programs evolve and improve by following the markers set down by the federal Race to the Top grant competition. The program has awarded $75 million to the city over the next four years in exchange for the District's commitment to improve academic standards and assessments, data systems and teacher quality and to close persistently failing schools.
Although Race to the Top is focused on K-12 education, Gray said it was a useful template. "There is absolutely no reason we shouldn't use it as a catalytic agent to focus on all public education at the front end and the back end," he said.
Gray called on the University of the District of Columbia to lead the way in establishing accelerated credentialing programs for infant and toddler professionals, similar to its efforts on behalf of early childhood teachers.
Gray said he also wanted to bring a new rigor to evaluating teacher performance in the early childhood sector by introducing evaluation systems similar to the IMPACT regimen now employed in D.C. public schools. Among those he mentioned was ECERS, or Early Childhood Environment Rating Scale, used in early childhood pre-K and kindergarten.
"So we can say we are absolutely ensuring accountability in those classrooms," he said.