Winning the Future: Early Learning, Race to the Top, and Federal Funding

After more than a month of tweaking and planning, today Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius announced the details of the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge (RttT-ELC). Both departments will co-administer the $500 million state-level grant competition, which has the goal of rewarding states that develop comprehensive plans for early learning system with coordination, clear learning standards, and “meaningful workforce development.” The most exciting aspect of this new initiative is that it puts quality front and center, incentivizing states to improve the educational effectiveness of all programs from birth to five, including state and local pre-K, Head Start, and subsidized child care. Specifically, states applying for grants will be encouraged to:

• Increase access to high-quality learning programs for low-income and at-risk infants, toddlers, and preschoolers
• Create transparent systems that align early care and education programs
• Improve training and support for the early learning workforce
• Implement robust evaluation systems to share best practices
• Help parents make knowledgeable decisions about their children’s care and education.

States must also ensure that any assessments used conform with the recommendations of the National Research Council on early childhood. The grants will also encourage states to continue making effective use of current state and federal investments in child care and early education.  Additional details of the grants will be available later this summer; grants will be awarded to state no later than the last day of 2011. Opportunities to comment are provided at This is your opportunity to push for higher quality.

Race to the Top, which has been a hallmark of the Obama administration’s education policy, originated in the stimulus bill (the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, or ARRA) as competition among states for education funding. The Department of Education has lobbied for an Early Learning Challenge Fund for two years, and the Obama administration requested it in their FY 2010 budget proposal, but many were surprised that the ELC Grants emerged from the sometimes acerbic battle of the budget for the end of FY11. Secretary Duncan noted at the press conference that “We are deeply grateful to Congress for supporting these programs. Congress understands the value of investing in education reform, particularly early learning, even in these economic times.”

Up until this point, the U.S. Department of Education has had little involvement in the funding or regulation of early childhood education. Yet, state-funded preschool has seen a remarkable rise in the last decade through a number of innovative program and funding structures. In the 2009-2010 school year, state-funded pre-K enrolled 1.3 million students, largely at ages 3 and 4. Adding special education brings the total to about 1.6 million. These programs are largely funded out of state dollars. The $5.4 billion spent last school year represents a decrease from the previous year, reflecting the impact of the recession.. States have increasingly turned to innovative applications of available federal funds; states utilized at least $283 million in federal funds, as well as another $154 million in TANF monies, to supplement their programs. In order to win grants in the Early Learning Challenge, states will need to work toward better integration and quality with a variety of programs, including the following:

Head Start
The largest federal foray in to early childhood education comes in the form of the Head Start program. In the 2009-2010 school year, Head Start served 755,078 3- and 4-year-olds nationwide (though the program is available to children at other ages as well) at the cost of about $7.4 billion. In the last few years, Early Head Start to serve children under age 3 has been greatly expanded to serve nearly 115,000 infants and toddlers.

Five states – Delaware, Minnesota, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin – use the existing structure of Head Start to implement state-funded pre-K programs that expand access to more low-income children. Twelve other states (including two without pre-K programs) provide supplemental Head Start funds as well, though this money is often used to increase staff salaries, provide extended-day or year services, or otherwise fund quality improvements rather than expanding access. At the local level, Head Start partners with school districts as well.

Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF)
The federal government also provides funding for child care programs through the Child Care and Development Fund, also administered through HHS. At least five states parlay CCDF into funding for pre-K programs. In the 2009-2010 year, California merged five of its early care and education programs into the State Preschool Program. While this change largely just redistributed resources rather than adding any new funding, this provides a better educational opportunity than most usually receive through CCDF funds. States that fund pre-K programs with these funds go above and beyond learning experiences in most child care facilities while using resources already at their disposal.

Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF)
States have wide latitude over how they use the Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) funds from the federal government. While the majority of this funding goes to provide public assistance subsidies, a substantial amount is used for child care subsidies and six states report using at least $81.7 million in TANF contributions for their pre-K programs targeting at-risk preschoolers.

Other Federal Programs
In a testament to state ingenuity, state pre-K administrators reported utilizing federal funds from a number of other programs, though states were often unable to specify the dollar amounts. Additional programs include:

• IDEA funds
• USDA Child and Adult Care Food Program
• NCLB Title programs
• Early Reading First
• Even Start
• 21st Century

While most programs consistently fund the majority of pre-K program operation using state dollars, for some federal funding has been a relatively stable source of supplementary funding, which can expand enrollment as well as improve quality. However, the 2011 federal budget requires 0.2 percent cuts across all non-defense discretionary spending, and eliminated a number of programs in the Department of Education, including Striving Readers, Even Start, and Educational Technology State Grants. States will have to put on their thinking caps in order to make up for lost funding from these sources or else face harrowing choices about cutting slots or compromising program quality.

All this talk of program consolidation and budget cuts is enough to make one weary of the appropriations process, but don’t be fooled by the late passing of the FY 2011 budget—budget season for FY 2012 is in full swing! Federal programs are funded through September 30, 2011, but be sure to take a look at the budget proposals for the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services put forth by the Obama administration as well as information on the pending reauthorization of ESEA to ensure America’s youngest learners have the resources they need to succeed.

The Early Learning Challenge grants are one of the most exciting developments in federal early learning policy to date. As the early learning community awaits the innovation and creativity states will demonstrate in their grant applications, let us also maintain our focus on utilizing all available federal resources to ensure all young learners enter school ready to learn, succeed, and “win the future.”

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER


  1. Pingback: Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge | investinginkids