In the end of May 2021, we had a conversation with Director Tonya Williams of the Division of Child Care and Early Education at the Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS) about her initial planning for the use of federal dollars to achieve the state goals for young children. Director Williams oversees the child care and development fund and the Head Start Collaboration Office, and until 2020, had overseen the state’s preschool program, which is now managed by the Arkansas Department of Education (AR DOE).
Throughout the pandemic, Director Williams has implemented many strategies in order to hear from the early care and education community about their needs, challenges, and suggestions for federal relief dollars. The division commissioned a study of early childhood education during the pandemic, surveying center directors and teachers in home-based and center-based settings, to understand the impact on teaching and learning, and staff and child/family well-being. In addition, the division has worked to bring together child care providers (bi-monthly), state contractors that provide technical assistance and professional development (monthly), AR DOE (the entity the oversees the state pre-K program): Arkansas Better Chance (ABC), and families with University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. These varied strategies in engaging stakeholders have helped create a two-way dialogue to develop a collective approach in using the ARPA funds targeted for child care.
Arkansas had already developed an early education strategic plan in 2009. However, the state did not have the funding to implement many of the ideas, such as increasing slots for infant-toddler high-quality care and supporting and enhancing the ECE workforce. There have also been some lessons learned during the pandemic that have influenced the plans. Most notably, many of the essential workers had children enrolled in programs that met lower levels of quality in Arkansas’s quality rating and improvement system, Better Beginnings, prior to the pandemic. DHS does not support low quality programs which means two things: 1) more programs (estimated 80-100) enrolled in Better Beginnings as a result of the pandemic and needing to serve children of essential workers who now are eligible to receive child care subsidies; and 2) the state realized it needed to improve communications to families on the importance of a high-quality program.
So how is Director Williams planning to prioritize investments in the state’s plan for 2021 Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act (CRRSA)?
- A significant increase in Arkansas’s T.E.A.C.H. program. Currently, Arkansas spends about $500,000 (reaching 50 educators), but if approved, using ARPA funds, this investment will increase to over $40 million (over the next two years). This will allow the state to stabilize the early education and care field, by not only increasing the number of people within the workforce, but also increasing qualifications. This could mean that thousands of early educators could complete their degrees.
- Funds for capacity building. Arkansas knows that every county in the state has an ABC pre-K program, however, not every county as sufficient high quality care for infants and toddlers. AR plans to use federal dollars to create additional slots for the counties with the highest need and lowest capacity to server infants and toddlers in all settings, including family child care, center based, and public schools if they are interested.
- Supporting increased quality. Arkansas plans to make investments in Better Beginnings, the QRIS program, to support programs at level 1, which is basically licensing, to move further in their ratings, at a quicker pace. Supporting all programs, at all levels of the QRIS to move to higher levels in the system will be one of the priorities.
These are the plans, which will need to be submitted to the federal Office of Child Care for approval.
Looking forward, Governor Asa Hutchinson recently established a committee of nine state secretaries and selected legislators to develop a state approach to allocating the various American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds for Arkansas. For example, the AR DOE is developing the state plan for the use of the third round of the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief Funds (ESSER III) due to the U.S. Department of Education on June 7th. The majority of ESSER funds flow to districts, so looking forward, these funds will need to be aligned with the other ARPA funds flowing to communities, connecting the ABC preschool program with the child care programs. Perhaps there will be overlap in shared PD and supporting transition for children and families. This may be an opportunity to address policies that would improve the quality of the child care programs.