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Education Department Sketches Out New Early Learning Competition

By Alyson Klein — May 06, 2014 3 min read
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The Obama administration wants to use $250 million in new early learning money to offer one set of grants to states that already have robust early childhood education programs, and another set to those just getting started.

Some background: Earlier this year, Congress gave the administration a fairly modest $250 million down payment on its much broader, $75 billion request for matching grants to help states cover the cost of a major expansion of early childhood education programs. These new “Preschool Development Grants” are actually funded under the Race to the Top umbrella, and the money is aimed at helping states get their early childhood programs up to snuff.

Sound a lot like the administration’s previous Race to the Top early learning competitions? The department has said that this version will look different. And it sketched out the details of this new competition in two draft documents.

The administration is envisioning two different tracks for states—it will run one “development” grant competition for states that don’t already have a robust early childhood education program or haven’t already won a Race to the Top early learning grant. The other competition will offer “expansion” grants to states that already have successful preschool programs, or have already snagged a Race to the Top early learning grant. (That’s 20 states so far.)

Under the department’s draft rules, fifteen states and Puerto Rico would be eligible for development grants that could span up to four years, and range in size from $5 million to $20 million, depending on a state’s population: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Puerto Rico, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming.

The states would have to submit a plan for increasing the number and percentage of children served in state-financed early childhood education programs. And they would have to draft proposals to improve the quality of their early learning programs through activities that sound pretty similar to the ones embraced by Race to the Top early learning, including establishing or beefing up early learning standards, putting in place a public rating system, linking preschool and K-12 data, and beefing up teacher training. States would also get points for developing strong partnerships with early learning providers, which could include school districts.

States that already have a Race to the Top early learning grant in hand, or already serve more than 10 percent of eligible kids through state-financed early childhood education programs could apply for an expansion grant.

That’s 35 states and the District of Columbia, including: Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin. And it looks like the administration is aiming to fund a mix of Race to the Top early learning winners, and non-winners—the administration has a competitive preference for each category.

Like the development grants, expansion grants could span up to four years, and their size is based on population. They would range from $10 million up to $35 million (in case California is a winner.) As with the development grants, states would have to sketch out plans for boosting the number and percentage of students served by preschool programs, as well as detail their progress in serving low-income kids, and improving program quality.

In both competitions, states would get extra points for kicking in some of their own matching funds, with the biggest advantage going to states that agree to allocate 50 percent or more of their own funding. States also get an edge for coordinating the new preschool programs with existing ones (such as Head Start).

These documents aren’t the last word on the program—interested folks have until Friday, May 16, to comment on the ideas presented in them. And the department will publish final rules for the new competition in the federal register this summer.

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