Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge

The U.S. Department of Education and Department of Health and Human Services announced yesterday a $500 million competitive grant program for state plans for early learning.  The details will be released later this summer, with states then having 6 to 8 weeks to submit grants, and grants being awarded by the end of 2011.

The intent of these grants, according to the U.S. Department of Education website, is to reward “states that create comprehensive plans to transform early learning systems with better coordination and assessment mechanisms, clearer learning standards, and meaningful workforce development and family engagement initiatives.”

Useful coverage of the announcement and what it means has so far been provided by Early Ed Watch, and the National Institute for Early Education Research.

As part of the competition, rather than the traditional approach of first putting out a draft proposal and then requesting comments, federal officials are instead requesting pre-proposal comments via a moderated blog.

My own quick reaction is that these funds are quite limited. Therefore, it is important to maximize impact. To do so, the federal government should consider:

  • Funding only a few states (in conference calls, so far federal officials have not said anything specific about number of states funded);
  • Focus on leveraging funds via developing much better assessment of quality of existing early childhood programs in the state, with interventions that respond to those assessments in a manner that will improve quality;
  • Some federal commitment to including assessment and improvement of Head Start quality in the state in this discussion;
  • Putting considerable weight on states that propose highly innovative pilot programs with rigorous evaluation design – this extra funding should support some significant new programs, not just one federal idea of an ideal system.

What do you think should be done to maximize the national impact of this competitive grant program for early learning?

About timbartik

Tim Bartik is a senior economist at the Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, a non-profit and non-partisan research organization in Kalamazoo, Michigan. His research specializes in state and local economic development policies and local labor markets.
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