Half a Billion Reasons to Be Optimistic About Early Learning

BlogEarly ChildhoodJul 29 2011

The federal debate over the debt ceiling has captured the nation’s attention, and as the clock runs out, the stakes grow higher.  Children’s advocates in the U.S. are understandably worried about impending cuts to certain federal programs that could significantly affect the availability of services for America’s middle and low income families.

However, amidst these challenging times, a new “challenge” has emerged that holds much promise for our nation’s youngest children —the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC). Recently announced by the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services, the new challenge builds on the K-12 Race to the Top initiative, inviting states to compete for $500 million in federal grant funding to “support bold and comprehensive state plans for raising the quality of early learning programs.”  Early Learning Challenge grants will range from $50 to $100 million, spread over four years. The official grant guidelines aren’t expected until late August (nearly 200 organizations submitted comments to the proposed guidelines).  Already nearly 40 Governors have said they plan to compete for the funding to support their states’ efforts to improve the quality of early childhood programs and close the kindergarten readiness gap for high-need children. While the infrastructures and investments of states’ early learning programs vary widely, the Early Learning Challenge grants offer all states the chance to move forward from where they are to build even stronger, smarter programs for children from birth to age five.

After decades of calling attention to the importance of early learning and advocating for resources for our youngest and most vulnerable children, the early childhood field is buzzing. Check out these three particularly good resources for more commentary and information: DOE, Washington Post, and the New America Foundation.

To support states as they prepare for the application process, a foundation-sponsored initiative has been launched that will provide technical assistance to states in planning their projects: The Early Learning Challenge Collaborative, organized by the First Five Years Fund and BUILD.

Another highly respected voice in early childhood policy, CLASP, has created an outstanding resource page for states related to the Early Learning Challenge.

Winners will be announced before the end of the year, so the next few months are sure to be busy for state governments involved in the competition. As a national research center with deep expertise in early childhood development and public programs serving young children, Child Trends is happy to share our latest research on issues relevant to the Early Learning Challenge application process, including:

A growing body of research and emerging best practices continue to point to the benefits, and return on investment, associated with high-quality early learning experiences. The architects of the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge deserve kudos for acting on the science and steering investments to high quality early learning initiatives that can affect countless lives. The Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge is much more than a baby step forward for young children – it’s a down payment on the healthy development of our nation’s youngest children. They are tomorrow’s leaders and early learning investments today will help build a stronger work force for tomorrow.  These investments should be a priority as, not only do they mean much better outcomes for children, but, study after study has shown early childhood investments result in long-term savings for taxpayers (through reduced remedial education, health services and criminal justice costs.)

Regardless of which states ultimately secure grants, here’s hoping that the process over the next several months results in a wave of innovative planning across all states.  We’re up for the challenge.