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Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge Awards Show Success of Pre-K Agenda

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Friday, December 16, 2011 at 5:09 PM

D Sharon Pruitt / Flickr

When federal officials announced the award of $500 million to nine states to improve early childhood education, the rhetoric was the kind perhaps more often heard at a chamber of commerce than a pre-school:

"How can our children compete for the jobs of tomorrow is they're already behind by the time they start kindergarten?," Domestic Policy Council Director Melody Barnes asked.

The answer: They can't.

The awards to the nine states who were the winners of the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge shows there is a broad, bipartisan consensus that America needs to provide better public services to very young children.

And for Ohio, whose application for $70 million in federal funding ranked fifth among the nine winners, the award is validates the steps the state has already taken to improve publicly funded preschools and daycare centers. (You can read the full application here.)

Two things stood out about Ohio's application, said Jacqueline Jones, U.S. Department of Education senior advisor on early childhood education:

  • Ohio's planned collaboration with Maryland to create better kindergarten readiness tests and
  • Ohio's plans to expand and improve the public database (called Step Up to Quality) that rates different types of early childhood programs.

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Those ratings are useful tools both for parents and to encourage programs to do better, said Sharon Lynn Kagan, co-director of the National Center for Children and Families at Columbia University's Teachers College:

It's taking something that is very complex and providing markers and shorthand to people who don't have the depth of training themselves. It can really influence how a parent is really assessing and evaluating for their kids.

The expansion of the Step Up to Quality system to include all types of early learning and development programs comes with an expansion of the licensing system for childcare programs that receive tax dollars: All settings serving two or more children will be included in a new, single licensing system.

Ohio will receive the full $70 million the state requested despite state budget cuts in some areas of K-12 and early childhood education. Many states have made similar budget cuts, said Harriet Dichter, national director of the First Five Years Fund:

This wasn't single-factor decision making.

Ohio was also awarded $400 million in "regular" Race to the Top funding to improve K-12 education. More than half of that money is flowing to participating school districts and charter schools.

But the proposed budget for the early childhood Race to the Top grant would send just $13 million directly to local agencies and programs. The largest part of the federal grant, about $51 million, would go to various contractors.

Kagan, the Columbia University early childhood researcher, noted that states with Republican and Democratic governors were roughly equally represented among this round of Race to the Top winners. The winning states ranged in size, and geography, from Rhode Island to California. That diversity shows the national support for improving early childhood education, she said.

While we've got nine winners we've also got a movement that's going to spearhead action in the field.

Ohio's Early Learning Challenge Race to the Top Application

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