And They’re Off!: Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge Details Announced

Last week, in conference calls with stakeholders and reporters, officials from the Departments of Education (ED) and Health and Human Services (HHS) provided further details on the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC) program. The Obama administration announced $500 million for the competitive grants in late May, and will accept feedback on the draft guidelines until July 11 before finalizing the regulations.

The competition is guided by three sets of priorities: absolute, competitive preference, and invitational:

• Absolute: These must be addressed in each state’s application.

  • Early learning and development standards and kindergarten entry assessments
  • Tiered quality rating and improvement system (QRIS)

• Competitive Preference: These criteria will secure “extra” points for applicants.

  • Include all early learning and development programs in the tiered QRIS

• Invitational: These are areas of particular concern for the Departments.

  • Sustained program effects in early elementary grades
  • Encourage private sector support through public/private partnerships

The program will rely on four selection criteria:

• Building successful state systems that align a variety of programs (Head Start, child care, state-funded pre-K, etc.).
• High-quality standards and comprehensive assessments focused on a broad range of domains to enter kindergarten ready to succeed. This includes engaging and supporting families and encouraging healthy development across domains.
• Developing high-quality, accountable programs using a robust tiered QRIS. This necessitates common statewide tiered program standards, promoting participation in QRIS across sectors, implementing rating and monitoring, and validating effectiveness of the QRIS.
• Developing and retaining an effective, high-quality workforce through improving knowledge, competencies, and credentials across the early childhood workforce.  States should also work with the higher education community to engage in this process.

Grant caps were developed by ranking each state based on its share of the national population of children birth to age 5 from low-income families.  Recognizing that rural communities have unique needs, the Departments may “exercise discretion” in ensuring states with large rural communities are well-represented.

Category Budget Cap States
Category 1 Up to $100M California, Florida, New York, Texas
Category 2 Up to $70M Arizona, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania
Category 3 Up to $60M Alabama, Colorado, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, Wisconsin
Category 4 Up to $50M Alaska, Arkansas, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Hawaii, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia, Wyoming

After reviewing the full text released by ED and HHS, a few trends are clear throughout the draft guidelines:

• There is a clear emphasis on collaboration across sectors and settings.  The grant ultimately seeks to help states remove various early learning programs from their separate silos and create a coherent statewide system. The Departments provide a comprehensive list of program settings to be involved, including state-funded pre-K programs, Early Head Start and Head Start programs, and programs funded by Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), and/or the Child Care and Development Fund (CCDF).
• States are expected to use RTT-ELC funds to supplement (and not supplant) state funding for these programs, as well as leverage existing resources to create stable funding both during and after the grant period. Particular attention is drawn to the quality set-asides in CCDF.  Secretaries Duncan and Sebelius had earlier emphasized the potential of utilizing funding from CCDF, Early Head Start and Head Start programs, IDEA, and Title I.  The feds are so eager for states to consider leveraging CCDF funds for early learning initiatives that they may submit revisions to their CCDF plans (due August 1) to align with their RTT-ELC applications.
• In this same open letter, governors were encouraged to utilize existing resources, both in terms of building on existing programs as well as working with organizations and agencies in their states already in the field. In particular, they singled out existing State Advisory Councils on Early Childhood Education and Care (SACs). In fact, having an operational SAC is an eligibility requirement of the grant, though how much participation will be required of SACs is not explicated.
• The Departments call for the development of a high-quality workforce through improving knowledge, competencies, and credentials. While the regulations call for collaboration between state programs and higher education institutions to improve credentialing, there are no clear guidelines as to what makes a “good” credential or well-qualified teacher.  Policymakers must ensure that the goal of increasing the number of credential recipients is not at the expense of maintain and improving the credential quality.
• The regulations call for increasing access to high-quality programs for high-need children. The best way to achieve this is by improving the quality of programs already enrolling children, rather than creating additional programs that cannot maintain high quality. In many states, the early childhood services offered are not of the highest quality to contribute to long-term growth. To expand the reach of these programs would be counterproductive.

Draft guidelines are available for the grant program at Comments will be accepted through 5 PM (EDT) on July 11. The final guidelines will be published in mid-August, and states must submit applications by mid-October. The grant period will be from December 2011 to December 2015.

Rundown of Organization Responses

There has been no shortage of analysis and commentary in the early learning blogosphere since the May announcement of the funds.  Below are links to some helpful recommendations and suggestions from organizations regarding the Challenge.  Please note that most of these documents were assembled before guidelines were further specified and so may only briefly touch on issues that are now paramount to applications.

The Huffington Post’s Education section gets reaction to the draft guidelines, including some comments from NIEER’s co-director, Steve Barnett.
• New America Foundation provides an archive of their Early Ed Watch blog’s coverage of RTT-ELC.
• Sara Mead at Education Week has voiced several concerns about the program, including peer review, the lack of clear role for foundations, and the vague goals initially offered, starting with the official announcement.
• The National Journal’s Expert Blog on Education offers a veritable pu pu platter of recommendations and cautions.
• CLASP offers research and resources directed towards each area highlighted in the ELC goals.
• Marian Wright Edelman and the Children’s Defense Fund put RTT-ELC in context.
• The First Five Years Fund’s The Starting Point blog provides strategies for early brainstorming on this short timeline.

Over the next few weeks, we expect to see more recommendations, suggestions, and commentary as experts and policymakers digest this information.

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER
– Jim Squires, Senior Research Fellow, NIEER


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