Reflections on ISBE’s FY24 ECBG RFP Process
Raising Illinois asks our program partners for their perspectives on the FY24 ECBG RFP process
In early April 2023, the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) released its Request for Proposals (RFP) for the Fiscal Year 2024 Early Childhood Block Grant (ECBG), which includes Preschool for All (PFA), Preschool for All-Expansion (PFA-E), and Prevention Initiative (PI). Due to PI’s unique role in funding critical prenatal-to-three (PN3) services like home visiting and infant-toddler early care and learning, Raising Illinois advocates for improvements to the ECBG grounded in parent and provider voice. In October 2022, our Family Leaders testified at an ISBE budget hearing in support of greater investment in ECBG, specifically PI, and earlier this year, our policy work group contributors submitted formal recommendations to ISBE on the RFP process. In May 2023, a group of providers in our Coalition met with ISBE leaders to discuss solutions to barriers to applying for and implementing PI in their programs.
Now, as the RFP application period closes on June 30, Raising Illinois heard from members of our Coalition on the benefits of ECBG, the limitations of the current RFP, and suggested changes for future funding opportunities. Many of the individuals we spoke with wished to remain anonymous.
On ECBG's Role In Funding Services & The Impact of Funds
Lois Meisenheimer from the Regional Office of Education (ROE) #47 in Sterling, IL praised the importance of the consistency of home visiting programs funded by ECBG-PI in Whiteside, Lee, and Ogle Counties for nearly 25 years. She states that without the PI grant their home visiting program would not exist, because ECBG is the sole funding source for the program through their ROE.
Other home visiting programs noted utilizing PI funding to develop a strong Coordinated Intake system and establishing strong connections to the health system.
Coalition members who run community-based organizations offering infant-toddler early care and learning pointed to ECBG-PI as an essential funding stream for operating high-quality programs. Early Head Start (EHS) providers shared that ECBG-PI funding was a good supplement to other types of funding because, by layering in PI, they could serve additional families who are not otherwise eligible. Of the over 17,250 infants and toddlers served by PI in 2022, an estimated 3,450 of them were enrolled in PI-supported center-based programs.
On The FY24 RFP Process
Many providers stated they felt ISBE was doing a good job this year with public awareness and spreading the word about the RFP opportunity, including having more materials and information available in Spanish. Coalition members shared their appreciation for the FAQ document, as well as the sample applications posted on the ISBE website as resources.
However, challenges with the RFP remain. Lois Meisenheimer describes the severe early childhood workforce shortage in her region, and that her PI program has gone from 5 home visitors down to 3, with huge caseloads per home visitor. She continues, “We also face the challenge of continued level funding (no cost of living increase) and are not able to pay home visitors what they are worth or even equal to other similarly qualified positions in our office. We are not able to provide health insurance for our home visitors because of a lack of adequate funding. Faced with these two significant issues, we made the decision to hold steady with our current grant and not write to expand. Our home visitors already have overloaded caseloads and would quit if we had additional slots and were unable to find additional staff to serve the families.”
Some programs expressed concern with the accuracy of the preschool deserts identified by ISBE as part of the RFP process, and the need for separate lists for 0-3 and 3-5 slot gap analysis across the state, with one coalition member adding “Priority considerations should be reviewed again to support equity for all ECBG programs. PI deserts were not identified.” Conversely, providers shared that, in some communities, there is an overabundance of unfilled 0-3 home visiting slots across program types, forcing community partners to compete for families to enroll rather than serving their communities more collaboratively.
Many described the award process as confusing and expressed that the actual RFP language needs to be simplified, while acknowledging ISBE’s necessary compliance with the Government Accountability & Transparency Act (GATA).
Other challenges raised by our members:
- Applicants must follow the instructions “to a tee” and reviewers are not allowed to read attachments outside of what is specified in the instructions. Tracy Patton, a home visiting advocate in DuPage County who was also an RFP reviewer for ISBE in previous years states, “It is very easy to get your application fully ruled out for not following even a font size instruction.”
- One coalition member described that, as a statewide community-based organization under one ISBE contract who is applying for funding in three desert communities across the state and applying for center-based PI and Home Visiting, it is difficult to submit a competitive proposal by providing all information for the rubric-section in just the one page allotted for each answer. “This is a competitive stretch for a community-based organization,” they shared.
- While having a shorter version makes the application more demanding, another community-based organization highlighted that the structure may force programs to be more precise in order to make it easier for readers to review all applications.
There is also duplication across the questions and programs are unsure if they are supposed to answer with similar or different responses in each question.
- Some home visiting models find it difficult to access ECBG-PI funding because the activities and outcomes of the ECBG often do not align with health-focused home-visiting components. Difficulties with alignment and reporting requirements can make programs hesitant to apply for ECBG funds, despite the funding being much needed. Moreover, multiple providers said that private funding of their programs is not integrated into the state’s data collection systems.
A center-based early care and learning provider in Cook County reflected on the administrative burden and lack of technical assistance for programs wishing to access ECBG’s resources. The RFP application “took time for us to even understand what it was all about, and we still have questions. We are still determining if we can pursue it given the requirements. We are under the impression that we may need to hire someone specifically for this initiative and unclear about the financial capacity we are looking at. We feel like we don't understand the spots, the reimbursement we would get- the dollar amount remains confusing. We reached out to Birth to Five as we were told the regional teams could help (which is also an appreciated support!) but they did not seem like they could help us understand if this is for creating new slots or existing slots but trying to draw in different applicants or both. So, we are still not sure where to go with this. It all just feels a little daunting.”
There have also been examples of positive changes, in particular collaboration among funding streams. The Illinois Head Start Association (ILHSA) has been running webinars to encourage Early Head Start (EHS) and Head Start programs to write for the ECBG RFP and providing some minor direct technical assistance, making former directors available to review applications. Similar to the ILHSA, the Baby Talk model is also offering some technical assistance to their programs who are applying for the ECBG-PI fundingThey hope that their programs will take advantage of the option to layer funding.
Thoughts For The Future
DeAndra Dyson, a Family Child Care (FCC) provider who operates From ‘U’ University in Park Forest, hopes that ISBE will make the RFP process less intimidating and time-intensive in future years. The requirements of the current grant awards “can become restrictive or overbearing for small providers such as FCC providers.”
More comprehensive and accurate data about local-level gaps are also crucial. Tracy Patton, the provider in DuPage County, emphasized that ISBE must consider the saturation of programs and services for infants and toddlers funded by other state or federal dollars when determining which communities will receive expansion awards. This will help the ECBG to more effectively increase access to supports for children and families who need them most.
Raising Illinois is grateful to ISBE for its commitment to increasing access to PN3 services through ECBG-PI. As ISBE works to develop planning grants and modify the RFP for future years, we are eager to continue supporting the success of the ECBG by elevating the perspectives of our Coalition members. We encourage any providers with thoughts on ECBG-PI to share their experiences with us.
"Faced with...two significant issues, we made the decision to hold steady with our current grant and not write to expand. Our home visitors already have overloaded caseloads and would quit if we had additional slots and were unable to find additional staff to serve the families.”
Early Childhood Coordinator
Regional Office of Education #47 in Sterling, IL