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Obama Administration Unveils New Preschool Grant Program

By Alyson Klein — August 13, 2014 5 min read
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Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia, which have already won federal grants to bolster their early-learning systems—or have robust early-childhood programs in place—could tap into even more money to improve preschool programs, under a new, $250 million “preschool development” grant competition announced by the Obama administration Wednesday.

And 15 states and Puerto Rico, which are just getting started on their early-learning programs would be able to compete, on a somewhat separate track, for a portion of those funds.

The preschool development grant program, which will be jointly administered by the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services, represents a relatively modest down payment on the Obama administration’s much broader, $75 billion request for matching grants to help states cover the cost of a major expansion of early-childhood education programs. The bigger program is likely to go absolutely nowhere in a tight-fisted Congress, so this scaled-back version may be all the extra early-learning money states see from the feds for quite a while.

The administration will run one $80 million “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 $160 million in “expansion” grants to states that already have successful preschool programs, or have already snagged a Race to the Top Early Learning grant.

The two-tiered system is a good way to make sure that all states have a shot at the funds, said Laura Bornfreund, the deputy director of the New America Foundation’s early-learning program.

“It’s important to recognize that states are in different places,” she said. And she likes the focus in both grant competitions on quality, including ensuring that preschool teachers receive salaries comparable to their K-12 counterparts, and the programs’ emphasis on providing strong links between early learning and K-12 so that student gains are sustained.

Both competitions would give states an edge for agreeing to funnel 50 percent of their funding to expanding preschool slots for low-income children. And both call for states make strong connections between early-learning programs and K-12.

Fifteen states and Puerto Rico would be eligible for the 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. The states are: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming. The department estimates that it will award somewhere between five and eight “development” grants.

States seeking development grants 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 the Race to the Top early learning effort, including linking preschool and K-12 data, measuring program outcomes, and beefing up teacher training.

States that get “development” grants could allocate up to 35 percent of their awards to infrastructure and program quality improvements. (That’s a big change from the draft guidance in May, which would have only allowed development states to use 10 percent of their awards for infrastucture.)

The change is a recognition that states without strong preschool programs really need to funnel money to building their programs up, Bornfreund said.

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

That’s 35 states and the District of Columbia. The complete list: 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. The administration expects to award between seven and 10 “expansion grants.”

And it looks like the administration is aiming to fund a mix of Race to the Top early-learning winners, and non-winners—it has a competitive preference for each category.

Like the development grants, expansion grants could go for up to four years, and their amount is based on population. They would range from $10 million up to $35 million (that’s just in case California is a winner). As with the development grants, states would have to write 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 coming up with 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).

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan traveled to the Hug Me Tight Childlife Center in Pittsburgh on Wednesday to discuss the program.

And Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, a key champion of the Preschool Development program in Congress, said the money will help get students ready for school.

“The earlier we can prepare students to succeed, the more likely they are to continue in their education and climb the ladder of opportunity,” he said in a statement.

Applications for the program are due by Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2014. Awards will be made in December 2014.

Does all this sound very familiar? It should. The department put out draft guidance back in May and sought stakeholder input. The feds received more than 600 comments on the program.

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