Growing Early Learning to Meet Growing Needs: Q&A with Sec. Susan Bunting



Delaware’s Secretary of Education, Dr. Susan Bunting, has a penchant for quality early learning. The Selbyville native, who previously helmed one of the state’s largest districts in Indian River, is a firm believer in the powers of high-quality pre-K. It’s why she helped spearhead the acclaimed Project V.I.L.L.A.G.E. program for four-year-olds who came from low-income Indian River families.

We caught up with Sec. Bunting to talk Project V.I.L.L.A.G.E., and her early learning priorities as the head of Delaware’s educational efforts.


As a lifelong educator, parent, and grandparent, tell us about your experience with children who get high-quality learning experiences before they get to kindergarten.


It can be hard to separate my parent/grandparent and educator selves, but in both areas, I see the need for children to be ready for kindergarten to be able to maximize what happens when they get there.


My mother was an educator, so I think this was always bred into me. I am one of those people who was reading to babies in utero and to infants.


We see the impact of high-quality learning before children get to kindergarten—the vocabulary of children who are read to and spoken with, and those who have context about what they are reading so they can understand the story and the ideas.


The children who have had some preschool experience are oriented to school, to a schedule, to finishing a task, and how to interact with each other. While the children who have no experience are not as well prepared. Without something miraculous happening, the gap these children enter with is something that persists throughout their lives.


What can you tell us about your approach and prioritization as Secretary of Education when it comes to early childhood education? Where would you like to see us go as a state?


I am particularly focused on what happens before kindergarten, because for those who have high-quality experiences, their transition is so much easier.


I would like to see Delaware make sure all students are entering with the skills they need to be ready to learn.


In addition, I am particularly concerned about the economically challenged child that might not otherwise have an early learning experience.

One of the success stories you were known for as Indian River’s superintendent was Project V.I.L.L.A.G.E. How did that program come to be? And, how did it inform your perspective on early learning?


When I was in the Indian River School District, we had the opportunity to apply for an Early Childhood Assistance Program (ECAP) [Delaware’s state funded pre-K program for four-year-olds from low-income families] grant. We didn’t have anyone to run it, so I was the administrator who ran the program, registered children, and oversaw the staff. And, to our board’s credit, they devoted district and Title I funds to the program.


A member of the community, a local priest, raised concerns about helping new migrant, Spanish-speaking neighbors in Sussex. He saw the need to work with children of workers at agricultural plants, which is why the program focused on English learners. The program has made a major difference for those students, so much that we have been able to track their progress throughout school and demonstrate that they continue to outperform their non-participating peers.


I remember when I was registering a family, a woman in tears said to me, “I always dreamed my children would have the opportunity to go to preschool…you are making it happen for my granddaughter.” I am still in touch with that child, who is thriving today.


The program, which is still in place today, received national recognition from the American Association of School Administrators and the National Association of State Boards of Education, and we were even able to create a scholarship for Project VILLAGE students who go on to college. It warms my heart to see the kids attending graduate programs, serving as leaders in student council, and coming back to teach in the district.


A number of districts have sought to expand their pre-K offerings for four-year-olds and to work with the early childhood community on shared professional development, walkthroughs, and other collaborations. What do you think has driven their efforts? And, how can we prioritize the teachers who are the most important factor in the classroom with students every day?


There is a growing interest in developing relationships with early learning programs and districts. One of the things we did in Indian River was include our ECAP teachers in district professional learning to ensure we had alignment and training for our workforce. Our reading specialists held workshops at night with child care and family child care providers on topics such as how to learn through music and how to read a book to a child. The specialists also went out to child care providers to model how to engage children in reading.


Other districts’ efforts are driven by recognition of lack of preparation for kindergarten. They see in their kindergarten screening/diagnostic tools that children are not where they should be in terms of vocabulary and basic concepts.


We saw last month from NIEER that some of our neighboring states are putting more emphasis on expanding state-sponsored pre-K for four-year-olds. How should we in Delaware approach pre-K?


We have seen a thirst to expand—in districts and in the community, and more can be done through ECAP efforts and other strategies. We see the opportunity, interest, and energy—to truly impact more children who need support. We will need resources and public will.


We are working with districts to leverage federal funding streams and opportunities in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), and the state is being supported by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO) and national experts to look at the policies involved in expanding high quality pre-K.


You’re a self-titled “die-hard optimist”—what are the biggest opportunities you see for Delaware’s students?


I am optimistic because we have caring educators, and we have more and more people who understand the importance of high-quality early childhood learning experiences—and that it is not babysitting but true learning and development.


As Hellen Keller said, “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.”


We truly can impact forever the trajectory of a child by making sure he or she is ready to learn—and we have lots of work to do for kids!

State Reimbursements Don’t Cover Even Half the Cost of Childcare



As any parent will tell you, childcare is important—and expensive.


And, for low-income parents who are working, training for a job, or looking for work, Delaware provides a subsidy called Purchase of Care to help pay for early learning tuition. Delaware covers about 15,000 children up to age 12 every year through POC. Families that qualify choose from centers that accept POC payments—not all do—and the state reimburses that provider based on the state’s available resources.


But the state only has a finite amount of dollars to spend on POC. And, unfortunately, POC reimbursements don’t come close to covering the cost of care for providers.


Every three years the Department of Health and Social Services surveys providers to ask what they charge private-pay parents and use those figures to compare to the state payment.


According to the latest market rate study, the state’s POC payment makes up only 50 percent of that amount—a fraction of the cost of care. Delaware has not increased the amount it pays providers since 2011, in spite of rising costs, inflation, and cost-of-living increases.


Despite the fact that the early years are the most important ones in terms of a child’s brain development, Delaware invests between four and 10-times less in early learning (even when including child care, home visiting, and other investments) than it does in K-12 students. Also in need of more investments: the workforce. Early learning professionals, in spite of their longer work days, are so poorly paid that nearly a third of them qualify for public assistance like Food Stamps.



Delaware’s current Purchase of Care reimbursement rate is already having serious implications. Childcare providers, when given the choice between a parent who can pay full-price and a parent who qualifies for POC, are taking a hard look at how to keep the doors open and choose the former. We are hearing that programs have reduced their numbers of Purchase of Care children, and some have decided not to accept Purchase of Care at all.


Delaware has not had a waiting list for children on Purchase of Care for decades, but this losing financial proposition may create a waiting list if the supply is not sufficient.


This is an issue we have to tackle as a state—and we can do that by:

  • Increasing Purchase of Care by $15M in the state budget this year. While this will not bring rates up to what is needed for 2018, it would go a long way to starting to help providers continue to offer childcare to families who need help. Contact your legislator and ask them to invest.
  • Tying POC rates to the tri-annual market rate study conducted by DHSS. Codify that the reimbursement rate not drop below 70 percent of the market rate—and establish the higher percentages to programs that receive high “Stars” quality ratings. Maryland is considering a bill that would enact this policy currently.


As a state, the early years are important for many reasons: we need to help parents work, help students be prepared to learn in Kindergarten, and invest to prevent other costs to society. Increasing the rate is required to ensure child care reimbursement achieves the goals it is intended to.


At a time when dollars are tight—and the state is working on its next fiscal year budget—it’s more critical than ever to invest more deeply in early childhood education. After all, it’s one of the wisest investments we can make so contact your legislator today!



What We’re Reading: A Timeless Reminder of Structural Inequity

What We're Reading
The education world is facing an equity crisis. Students of color, low-income students, students with disabilities, and English learners (to name a few) remain underserved by our current system. While many fight for solutions, gaps in our collective knowledge and understanding of the complexities around educational inequity linger.

Each month, the Rodel team will share some thoughts on a book, essay, article, or video related to equity in education with the hope that we will challenge both ourselves and others to think more inclusively about education reform.


What I’m Reading: The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy, by William Julius Wilson


Author William Julius Wilson has his fans far and wide. He is a National Medal of Science winner.  National Book Award winner Ta-Nehisi Coates has called him an intellectual deity, a “gawd;” and David Simon was inspired by his work when creating “The Wire.” Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said about Wilson: “He has influenced me more than anyone I could think of.”


Not bad for an octogenarian sociologist.


Wilson’s book “The Truly Disadvantaged: The Inner City, the Underclass, and Public Policy” is a short, accessible read that reveals how structures and institutions, especially in American cities like Wilmington, have contributed to the inequitable conditions we see today—and how multifaceted and intergenerational the problems of concentrated poverty are.


Although this book is 28 years old, its principles are still instructive. I still reflect on Wilson’s research, because it helped cement for me that racism is structural and institutional—and that social issues cannot be solved by one sector alone.


The author’s proposed solutions are multi-sector, including ideas around employing the long-term unemployed, and multi-tier neighborhood support programs like the Harlem Children’s Zone, which aims to curb the cycle of generational poverty through parenting workshops, early learning, and child-oriented health programs.


Twenty-eight years later, Wilson’s work serves as a good reminder for those of us who hope to impact these complex issues not to dismiss the history that got us here—and to expand our horizons across sectors.

Delaware Remains Among Lowest States Providing Pre-K for Four-Year-Olds

The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) released its latest state rankings for pre-K enrollment, and, much like last year, Delaware landed toward the bottom at 36th in terms of providing access for four-year-olds. Less than 10 percent of Delaware four-year-olds are enrolled in state-sponsored pre-K.


Little has changed with Delaware’s NIEER standing since 2002 with preschool enrollment and spending per child relatively flat, while our state-funded pre-K (ECAP) has not been expanded since its inception in the 1990. The report correctly mentioned that the program expanded eligibility to include three-year-olds for the first time in 2017-2018, but Delaware is not yet serving three-year-olds in ECAP.


Make no mistake: Delaware has seen some great early learning progress over the last decade. But NIEER’s rankings put Delaware behind all of our neighboring states and many others across the country in terms of four-year-olds being served by state-supported pre-K.

And, when Head Start, special education, and ECAP are included, Delaware ranks 36th for enrollment of low-income students.


Three- and four-year-olds in Delaware attend a scattershot of pre-K offerings, if they attend at all. Some providers are funded through the state, some are private businesses, while others receive a mix of private and public funding. There is little coordination or alignment between various programs.


In Delaware and other states, state-funded pre-K typically carries higher standards than other childcare options when it comes to academics, staff (BAs for teachers and Child Development Associate degrees for assistants, as recommended by NIEER), and expectations on the students. And, as we’ve noted before, as we continue to align the pre-K and K-12 systems, we need to ensure as many kids as possible are coming to kindergarten with the skills they need to succeed.


This jibes with recent ELS data that show us nearly half of Delaware students are entering kindergarten behind the curve, signaling the need to increase access and quality of state-sponsored pre-K—and all early learning environments that support young people from birth.


The good news is there’s a lot of interest in Delaware to improve our ranking and serve more children.


  • Local and national studies agree—pre-K can have a big impact.
    • Secretary of Education Susan Bunting, who initiated the Project V.I.L.L.A.G.E. program in Indian River School District, found that English learner participants in pre-K outperformed their nonparticipating peers through high school.
    • A UD study demonstrated that ECAP participants were outperforming their nonparticipating peers through middle school.
    • Pre-K is one of the highest return on investments a state can make.
  • Delawareans support expansion.
    • 86 percent of Delawareans in a recent poll support expanding pre-K.
    • Delaware recently joined a national network focused on high quality pre-K expansion through CCSSO.
    • The Vision Coalition of Delaware in Student Success 2025 recommended to “establish and incrementally expand voluntary, full-day, high-quality prekindergarten for three- and four-year-olds.”
    • Districts across the state are expanding their programs, especially Colonial.
    • The Coalition for Our Kids has advocated for greater investment in ECAP.
  • And, it’s possible—we have a model. In the 2000s, Delaware implemented a 10-year, phased-in, full-day kindergarten requirement during which districts had the time to build facilities, raise the local funding required, hire teachers, and inform families. Pre-K could be done in much the same way, but with public and private settings, with community-based providers providing services as they do now.


Contact your legislator and the governor to encourage them to invest in high-quality pre-K.


As we’ve said many times on this blog, investments in quality early learning yield enormous returns, for students, families, and society as a whole.