Early Childhood

Early Education a Priority of New Federal Grant Pool

By Michele McNeil — May 09, 2011 4 min read
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan helps 4th graders with their math lesson after a news conference earlier this year at a school in Washington, D.C.

Armed with a fresh $700 million in an otherwise austere federal budget year, the U.S. Department of Education is trying to figure out how to leverage the money through a new round of state-level competitions focused, in part, on early-childhood education.

The new funding—viewed as an extension of the Obama administration’s signature Race to the Top program—was part of last month’s congressional budget deal that cut nearly $1 billion in funding from the U.S. Department of Education through September, after adjusting for the Pell Grant program.

But that agreement gave U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan $700 million to design a new competitive grant program aimed partially at improving early-childhood care and education for low-income and disadvantaged infants, toddlers, and preschoolers.

That focus comes in addition to the four policy priorities—improving data systems, standards and assessments, low-performing schools, and teacher effectiveness—that governed the $4 billion Race to the Top contest won by 11 states and the District of Columbia last year.

Big questions remain about the new funding stream, however, since Congress gave the department very little guidance about how to spend the money. And so far, the agency has been silent about its plans.

One leading option being discussed by department officials: conducting a Race to the Top-like competition for states focused entirely on early education that would award either a significant portion of the funds or the entire pot. In fact, 43 Democratic lawmakers in the U.S. House last month urged Mr. Duncan in a letter to dedicate a “significant” chunk of the money for a separate, early-learning competition.

“We’re going to have a fantastic opportunity to really make a difference here,” Mr. Duncan said earlier this month, adding that the department had not decided what the new competition would look like or how much money would be set aside for early learning.

Still, any new competition could differ in format from the original Race to the Top, which pitted states against each other as they devised ambitious education reform plans with an eye on the $4 billion in prize money. Mr. Duncan and his staff created that competition from relatively vague guidelines set up by Congress in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the economic-stimulus package passed in 2009.

Those same vague guidelines, with a couple of exceptions, apply to the new $700 million. Those exceptions include the new focus on early learning, the elimination of the requirement that half the grant money go to school districts, and a new requirement that early-childhood grants be awarded in partnership with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Whatever direction Mr. Duncan takes, the Education Department will have to move quickly to publicize the proposed rules and run them through the federal rulemaking process, so there’s enough time for the actual competition. The department must award the money by Dec. 31. It has yet to determine how long states will then have to spend their money.

Sustaining the Brand

For Mr. Duncan, the $700 million is a mechanism to keep the popular Race to the Top brand alive, even if the new grants are not formally part of the ARRA-created program. He used the promise of $4 billion last year to urge states to expand their charter school sectors, link student test scores to teacher evaluations, and improve their data systems, among other measures. He also is seeking to make Race to the Top-like competitions part of the Elementary Secondary and Education Act, which is up for reauthorization in Congress.

The new money gives Mr. Duncan a chance to make his mark in the early-education arena.

Marci Young, the project director for Pre-K Now, a campaign of the Washington-based Pew Center on the States, said requiring states to address early-childhood learning as part of a de facto extension of Race to the Top, which she called the “nation’s leading reform template,” sends a strong signal of the federal commitment to early learning.

“We can’t race to the top when so many children are not even at the starting line,” she said.

Pre-K Now would not only liketo see a separate competition focused on early learning, but want the department to make a state’s plans to improve access to high-quality prekindergarten programs a core application component of a general Race to the Top-like competition, if there is one this year.

Just how big a mark can be made with $700 million is an open question.

W. Steven Barnett, the co-director of the National Institutefor Early Education Research, said it would take $2 billion in additional spending to provide every disadvantaged child with quality prekindergarten. In fact, total state spending on pre-K dropped in 2009-10, vs. the year before, as the recession continues to take its toll, according to the latest annual report from Mr. Barnett’s group. Ten states did not fund pre-K at all last school year.

“If the federal government could leverage state [funding], there’s enough money there to get us well on our way to doing that,” he said.

But this new money is supposed to fund more than just pre-K, said Sara Mead, an early-childhood-policy expert and an associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a national education policy nonprofit. The goal, she said, is to encourage and fund comprehensive systems of early education that link together a patchwork of social services within states that serve children as young as infants, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. So to do this, $700 million, or less, may not go very far, she pointed out.

“On the early-childhood side, you can’t buy a lot of services with a small pot of money,” said Ms. Mead, who also blogs for edweek.org. “You can do some coordination. ... We do want integrated systems, but that isn’t the way most states are set up.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 11, 2011 edition of Education Week as Early Education Awaits Swell of New Grant Aid

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