Crossing the Finish Line? Race to the Top–Early Learning Challenge Winners Announced

The U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services today announced the nine states that will receive funding through the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC).  Thirty-five states, D.C., and Puerto Rico applied for a share of the $500 million available through this competitive program, which has been the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s efforts on early childhood education. The application process operated on a tight timeline: the program was announced over the summer, applications were due in October, and funds had to be awarded before December 31. Specific budgets will be released after the federal departments have conferred with the individual states.

Congratulations to those nine winners announced today, who may only just be regaining their breath after the mad dash to the application finish line. Those states are California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island, and Washington.

These states are no strangers to the Race to the Top competition – six of the nine have previously been awarded funding through the two earlier rounds of RTT targeted toward K-12 improvement; California, Minnesota, and Washington were the only ones not to be awarded RTT funds previously. All state applications are available online, and reviewer comments and scores are posted as well.

The press conference itself was a who’s who of early childhood education celebrities, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius. Barbara Bowman, co-founder of the Erikson Institute and NIEER Scientific Advisory Board Member, called for “well-rounded programs offering [children] multiple opportunities to learn” while James Heckman, a Nobel Prize winner for his work on the economics of education, heralded the program as “a critical first step in recognizing the importance of the early years…that will promote better education, health, social, and economic outcomes for all…”

RTT-ELC garnered significant attention within the early childhood community—the inclusion of money under the umbrella of Obama’s trademark Race to the Top during such austere budget times was seen as a good sign. While responses to the specifics of the program were mixed, all observers can agree that RTT-ELC represents a big step as state-funded early learning programs are elevated to an issue of national interest.

As a quick refresher from NIEER’s original coverage, the competition was 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

Consideration for the grants relied on four selection criteria focused on aligning a variety of programs; establishing high-quality standards and comprehensive assessments to improve kindergarten readiness; implementing a statewide tiered quality rating improvement system (QRIS); and developing and retaining an effective early learning workforce.

Winners were also selected  based on demonstrated past commitment to early childhood education. Many stakeholders were concerned that this factor would work against states who are only just starting  state-funded early childhood education programs—perhaps an accurate sentiment given that all grant winners already provide state-funded pre-K under NIEER’s definition; Arizona (whose program was cut in the 2010-2011 school year), Hawaii, Mississippi, and Puerto Rico were all denied funding. However, as reflected by NIEER’s rankings on access and spending, as well as quality standards benchmarks, these programs are largely those who have demonstrated a commitment to early education but still have much work ahead of them. Table 1 shows these rankings for the nine RTT-ELC winners, based out of the 40 states that had state-funded preschool programs in the 2009-2010 school year.

Table 1. 2009-2010 NIEER Yearbook Rankings for RTT-ELC Winners

State Access for 4-year-olds Access for 3-year-olds State (including TANF) Spending per Child All Source Spending Per Child Quality Standards (out of 10)
California 23 6 12 18 4
Delaware 32 None served 7 13 8
Maryland 12 None served 21 3 9
Massachusetts 28 14 24 26 6
Minnesota 39 22 5 11 9
North Carolina 20 None served 13 10 10
Ohio 36 19 23 25 2
Rhode Island 40 None served 9 5 10
Washington 31 16 6 12 9

Only five of the nine winners currently serve any 3-year-olds, and only California breaks into the “top ten” for percent of 3-year-olds served; none make the top ten for percent of 4-year-olds served. Spending is a mixed bag. As can be seen by the difference between state per-child spending and all source spending per child, many of these states already utilize multiple funding streams (from federal and local sources) to supplement state funds. The majority of these programs generally meet a high number of quality benchmarks, with both North Carolina and Rhode Island’s state-funded pre-K programs achieving all 10 of NIEER’s benchmarks. On the other side of the coin, though, are both California and Ohio who have struggled to implement high-quality standards through difficult budget times. Both Delaware and Minnesota already partner with their existing Head Start programs to provide early education, which may have served them well in a competition that calls for alignment across sectors.

During the 2009-2010 school year, these programs served a combined 234,566 young learners in state-funded pre-K programs with a total of $1.2 billion in state and TANF funds. However, these states vary widely in terms of the size of their programs and states. Funding from these grants will not be limited only to state-funded pre-K programs, so it is useful to understand how many 3- and 4-year-olds are currently served in a variety of government-funded early education programs. To that end, Table 2 includes the enrollment and spending figures for these nine state pre-K programs and Table 3 shows total enrollment for state pre-K, special education, and state and federal Head Start.

Table 2. Enrollment and Spending Data for RTT-ELC Winners in 2009-2010

State State Pre-K Enrollment Percent of 3-year-olds Enrolled Percent of 4-year-olds Enrolled State Spending per Child Enrolled in State Pre-K Total Per-child Spending from All known Sources
California 147,185 10% 17% $5,410 $5,571
Delaware 843 0% 7% $6,795 $6,795
Maryland 26,147 0% 35% $4,116 $9,645
Massachusetts 13,468 4% 14% $3,895 $3,895
Minnesota 1,874 1% 1% $7,301 $7,301
North Carolina 31,197 0% 24% $5,239 $7,824
Ohio 5,700 1% 2% $3,902 $3,902
Rhode Island 126 0% 1% $5,556 $9,127
Washington 8,026 2% 7% $6,817 $6,817

Table 3. State and Federal ECE Enrollment for RTT-ELC Winners in 2009-2010

State Enrollment in State Pre-K, Special Education Pre-K, and State and Federal Head Start (Unduplicated)
Percent of 3-year-olds in state Percent of 4-year-olds in state
California 18% 31%
Delaware 11% 18%
Maryland 10% 46%
Massachusetts 14% 26%
Minnesota 10% 15%
North Carolina 7% 35%
Ohio 14% 19%
Rhode Island 10% 19%
Washington 9% 20%

As Sara Mead noted shortly after the announcement, “The list also should clearly underscore that ELC is NOT a pre-k program: Rhode Island, for instance, has only a recently-created pre-k pilot, and Minnesota serves relatively few children in pre-k.” In a program that called so clearly for inter-agency collaboration and recommended private-sector partnerships, the impact will go far beyond just pre-existing state-funded pre-K programs. There will be no shortage of analysis on the impact in Head Start and child care in the coming days, months, and years.

A number of these states have been in the news recently for their early education programs, and the news has not all been good. California merged its pre-K and child care programs in the 2009-2010 school year but has faced continued funding challenges. North Carolina, once a national leader in early childhood education, has been involved in a lengthy legal battle over the program; Steve Barnett recently wrote that the state is “on the verge of abandoning its commitment to high-quality pre-kindergarten education.” Rhode Island only recently started its small pre-K program, while Ohio completely cut one such program as of the 2009-1020 program year. It is hoped the RTT-ELC grants will spur these states to become true national leaders.

– Megan Carolan, Policy Research Coordinator, NIEER

– Jen Fitzgerald, Public Information Officer, NIEER

4 Responses to Crossing the Finish Line? Race to the Top–Early Learning Challenge Winners Announced

  1. […] to undertake ambitious early education system reform initiatives bolstered by their winning coveted Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grants in 2011. Each New England state submitted an application with the exception of New […]

  2. […] interest in early education beyond just targeted programs through Head Start in the form of the Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge. I’m thrilled to see President Obama talking about early education in his State of the Union, […]

  3. […] interested in pursuing these collaborative partnerships with the federal government, consider that thirty-five states and the District of Columbia applied for Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge funds in 2011. In the end, pre-K is not a […]

  4. […] education through the federal Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge in 2011.  However, only nine states were awarded funds. These applications demonstrate a clear interest and capacity by state governments to partner with […]

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