The administration made a decision last week to concentrate its limited resources on early childhood learning. The Education Department will focus $500 million of its $700 million in Race to the Top grants for this year on programs that increase the enrollment of low-income and disadvantaged kids in pre-school and design high quality learning programs. The announcement is a sharp departure from the original plan to distribute $900 million to school districts.
The $500 million commitment is an acknowledgment that the funding available for Race to the Top this year is more limited than in previous years, which means the grants must be targeted toward more-specific goals. Early learning won the day, in part because of advocacy from Capitol Hill, and in part because it's difficult to push children toward high-skilled jobs when they fall behind in reading in the early grades.
The Education Department money will add on to HHS's roughly $12 billion for Head Start and child-care funding, and it will give the two agencies the ability to set universal standards for early learning centers, moving away from the state-based "patchwork" of programs currently in place.
Given the scarce resources, did the Education Department make the right choice in focusing on early learning? Did grades 3-12 get the short shrift? What can states do to boost their enrollment in early learning among disadvantaged kids? How can child-care centers and pre-K programs improve such that the kids are ready for kindergarten? Are there adequate measurements to assess how early learning programs are performing?