We’ve written many City of New York Universal Pre-Kindergarten (UPK) proposals—as well as various Head Start, Early Head Start and other early childhood education proposals—so we read with interest Katie Taylor’s recent NYT story “In First Year of Pre-K Expansion, a Rush to Beat the School Bell.” New York City is apparently having a tough time giving away valuable free stuff. They City and its legion of grantees have to hire “enrollment specialists”—who we like to call “Outreach Workers” in proposals—to convince people to take the free slots.* The situation is so extreme that we have to use italics.
Since it costs NYC taxpayers about $8,000/slot to provide UPK and the parents pay nothing, it may seem odd that parents aren’t lining up to get valuable free stuff. Usually it’s easy for providers to recruit parents for early childhood education programs that are paid via OPM (“Other Peoples’s Money“). Since Mayor de Blasio is a textbook modern progressive, it is probably inconceivable to him that low-income parents wouldn’t see the inherent wisdom in sending their kids off to UPK. He says:
“Parents get what this means for their kids,” the mayor said. “They understand the difference between their child getting a strong start and not getting it.”
Right. If this is true, why the need for enrollment specialists?** The answer is complex but essentially comes down to the reality that not all parents, low-income or otherwise, want their kids in a public program. Reasons are varied but include general disinterest of parents in their kids’s lives, which is demonstrated by the fairly low enrollment rates in many states in the nominally priced Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Some parents, particularly single moms, may have a boyfriend who is dealing or otherwise up to no good and doesn’t want to raise the attention of city officials if little Johnny brings a bag of meth to preschool or shows up with bruises.
The mom herself may be alcohol or drug addled. Many parents also have informal childcare support provided by older siblings, extended family, or neighbors, who are easier to access than getting the kid dressed and accompanied to formal, institutionalized preschool (“It takes a village to raise a child”). Some parents also realize there actually isn’t much education going on in UPK and similar classrooms, as demonstrated by relatively weak outcomes evaluations of the grandaddy of such efforts, Head Start, which we’ve discussed before.
There may be religious issues, as many UPK providers are run by faith-based organizations. If you’re a Catholic immigrant from Guatemala, you may not be all that enthusiastic about sending your kid to a UPK program run by an ultra Orthodox Jewish school (or vice-versa; in the proposal world diversity and ethnic harmony are universal, but the real world is often more complex). It’s an open and unsurprising secret that many faith-based early childhood education providers prefer kids of their own religion. Like many aspects of human service delivery, this is never stated in a proposal.
There is another interesting moment in Taylor’s story: “It is critical to Mr. de Blasio’s credibility that the program ultimately be seen as successful.” The key words are “be seen as.” The program doesn’t have to be successful; it only must be perceived that way, and particularly by voters. That’s true of virtually every government-funded grant program—see comment about Head Start, above. Smart applicants know this and tailor their proposals, reports, marketing, and other material appropriately. In the grant world there are no failures; there are only programs that need more money and time to thrive with ever-greater success, leading to a glorious future when the next five-year plan has been fulfilled.
One can see this principle at work in “Thoughts on the DOL YouthBuild 2012 SGA: Quirks, Lessons, and, as Always, Changes,” where we describe how “the DOL is implicitly encouraging applicants to massage data.” One of our clients didn’t realize this and submitted self-reported data that did not conform to the DOL’s highly improbable standards. DOL doesn’t want to know the truth, assuming there is such a thing in this circumstance; the DOL wants to be told that they’re still the prettiest girl at the dance. When we wrote their next YouthBuild proposal, we obfuscated the outcome with through the magic of grant writing. The agency was funded.
In general we are not hugely optimistic that early childhood education is going to have the widespread salutary effects regularly attributed to it by its defenders. But we stand ready, as always, to write early childhood education proposals, keeping the story intact. If someone is paying you to tell them what they want to hear, you should be prepared to tell them what they want to hear.
* In any capitated service program like UPK, the participants are usually referred to in proposalese as occupying “slots,” however impersonal this sounds. A childcare center that serves 100 kids is referred to as having “100 slots.”
** Another quote from the NYT article:
“Good morning,” she said, approaching a young couple at a playground in Brownsville this month. “Do you know any 4-year-olds?”
Is the same sort of thing that people who call themselves “pick-up artists” or “gamers” do. Shanté Jones, the person quoted in the story, probably isn’t as polished, but I hope she has read How to Win Friends and Influence People. I prefer the pre-1981 edition which is less politically correct but also a useful reminder of what people, or at least one person reflecting on his cultural milieu, thought in the 1930s. “Cultural milieu” is also a good proposal phrase.