The Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge: Raising the Bar to Improve Quality Care and Education for Young Children

Article excerpt

On May 25, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius announced a new, joint initiative--the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge (RTT ELC) grant program--aimed at improving early learning and development programs that would create a pathway for disadvantaged children. A total of $500 million in federal funds will be awarded to states that present the most promise in making meaningful strides to improve the overall quality of their early care and education programs for children from birth to five years of age.

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The RTT ELC's program structure is similar to the Department of Education's (DOE) 2009 Race to the Top, which was funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to raise the education standards of low-performing schools and improve teachers' effectiveness through incentives and training opportunities. However, the FY 2011 continuing resolution, which established the RTT ELC grant program, requires DOE and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to collaborate on efforts to address the whole needs of younger children to improve their school readiness. The law included a reciprocal mandate for the federal agencies to jointly administer the RTT ELC grant and develop its program requirements, priorities and selection criteria. Interagency collaboration tapped pre-kindergarten, child care, Head Start, Early Head Start and maternal and child health home visitation, and other early childhood programs to generate this early education reform effort.

Though still in its early stages, the RTT ELC is not new to states, policymakers, or the general public. Many groups and individuals have kept a close eye on this federal initiative from the time it was first introduced until its final passage. Understanding the critical need for increased policy reforms that promote high-quality care and education for young children, states and national advocates approached Congress and the White House to spark an interest and gain their support. As a result, various White House and congressional proposals were introduced to establish an early learning challenge initiative. The timing of these proposals and political environment prompted a sense of urgency for public and private organizations to gather in Washington to lobby for this program's full passage and for a congressional appropriation to make it successful. In his State of the Union address, President Obama stated, "if we raise expectations for every child, and give them the best possible chance at an education, from the day they are born until the last job they take ... By the end of the decade, America will once again have the highest portion of college graduates in the world."

RTT ELC funds will be used to help boost states' efforts to launch robust and integrated systems of high-quality care and education. In their application, states must demonstrate a full commitment to build a coordinated system of early care and education, align policies and resources, and increase access to high-quality early learning and development programs for children presenting the most need. Federal officials clearly stated that states must compete to receive these funds.

Thirty-six states, including the District of Columbia, have expressed interest in being a part of this competitive race. The winners will be determined based on the quality of their grant applications and approved budgets. So, what did it take for these states to confidently step up to the challenge? It is important to take a step back and review some of the accomplishments states have made in the last decade. Prior to implementing promising practices and data-driven solutions, these particular states recognized a strong need for low - income children to gain greater access to high - quality care and education programs. Most of these children were living in impoverished communities, presented poor outcomes and lacked early learning supports. …