Where is the Gates Foundation Going With Funding For Early Childhood Education?

Recently, I gave a webinar for a jam-packed cyberhouse on early childhood education fundingwhere to find grant money for your ECE nonprofit. One big question I wanted to answer for my audience was where the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is going with its early childhood education funding strategy. Since Gates is such a looming presence in philanthropy, and because ECE nonprofits in general are fierce hunters for grant dollars, this seemed like an important area to make sure I had covered.

So where is Gates going with its ECE strategy? The short answer is that there is no short answer to this question. How do I know this? I recently corresponded with Sarah Weber, program officer for the Gates Foundation on the Early Learning and Education Pathways team to find out more about Gates's early childhood education funding strategy. I learned that some of the questions I posed were the very questions that the foundation is grappling with. "We are still in the design phase of the strategy and discussing many of these same issues," said Weber.

The Gates Foundation began funding ECE in 2005 as part of its Pacific Northwest grantmaking in Washington State and surrounding regions. Then, in a dramatic shift in 2014, Gates decided to open up its grantmaking for ECE nationally.

After opening up grantmaking in 2014 nationally, Gates began working to identify exemplar preschool programs in different states so that these exemplars could be developed and replicated elsewhere. In November of 2014, for example, Gates gave Ounce of Prevention in Chicago $3.75 million for the purposes of "expand[ing] access to high-quality early learning by extending best practices and promoting effective policies."

In December 2014, it also gave Colorado Seminary at the University of Denver a $687,338 grant to support improving "math instruction and math achievement for young children by upgrading the technology and impact of the Building Blocks Learning Trajectories into a Learning and Teaching with Learning Trajectories tool."

In 2015, the Gates Foundation has made some other big grants for ECE around the country, including a $50,000 grant in April of 2015 to the New Venture Fund in Washington, D.C. to fund its Early Learning Design Lab. And in June 2015, it funded Pre-K Our Way in Florham Park, New Jersey, with $50,000 for the purpose of  "provid[ing] funding for local district outreach to expand New Jersey’s high-quality preschool so that additional three- and four-year-old children are prepared for kindergarten success."

Bill and Melinda Gates confirmed to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in a July interview that nationwide funding for early childhood programs would indeed be a major priority going forward.

Now, Gates's focus appears to be getting more specific. In our email exchange, Weber described Gates's new focus this way: "Our work will have a specific focus on improving the provision of high-quality pre-K for three- and four-year-olds as well as supporting a well-prepared and compensated workforce."

This explains the foundation's recent grant for $100,000 to the Institute of Medicine in October 2014 to support a study that will "inform a national framework for strengthening the capacity of parents of young children, birth to age eight."

Another key point about Gates's ECE strategy, as Sarah Weber put it: "We do not expect to provide grants to direct service providers." Rather, the foundation hopes to work with city, state, and federal partners to develop promising programs and to couple workforce development efforts with high-quality child care options.

This intrigued me, so I asked Weber if I could get some more details. I wanted to get a sense of what the pairing of workforce development granting with ECE grantmaking would look like. But right now, the foundation is not ready to answer those kinds of questions. We will keep checking with them, though, to find out more when the picture becomes clearer.

I also wanted to know more about Gates's exemplar programs. To learn about that, Weber referred me to this study commissioned by the Gates Foundation and written by James Minervino, which describes in great detail the four exemplar programs that Gates is using to shape quality early learning. Some key findings? All exemplar programs have two adults in the classroom, and all exemplar programs have no more than 22 children in the classroom. Another key finding: Quality pre-K thrives in an environment where political leaders are active on the issue, particularly mayors and governors.

I also wondered if the Gates Foundation had any response to the Urban Institute's 2015 Kids' Share report, which predicts that federal funding for kids, and for early childhood care and education, will decline significantly over the next 10 years. Is Gates hoping to use its public policy muscle to advocate for a reverse of this dangerous course? Is there any hope that with technology and by replicating best practices, we can fill the gaping hole in the federal budget for children?

Finally, I asked whether Gates would address the fact that many early childhood educators live at or below the poverty line. Would this be accounted for in the foundation's efforts to improve professional development for ECE as well as workforce development? I found a partial answer to this question in the study by James Minervino, which found that exemplar programs also had "lead teachers with a B.A. plus suitable early learning credential, paid at same level as K-3 teachers." So it appears that the Gates Foundation supports the need to pay preschool teachers adequately.

Bottom line: The future for ECE funding from the Gates Foundation is a work in progress, and what will happen next is not entirely clear.

What is clear, though, is that Gates is keenly interested in cooperating with government on ECE, working with city, state and federal actors to identify exemplar programs and then replicate and scale those programs. By joining workforce development with ECE, Gates also appears to be thinking holistically about the issue of early childhood, and to be considering how economic stability for families is key.

We'll plan to circle back for another conversation with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation on its ECE strategy in the coming months. Stay tuned.