This summer, the U.S. Department of Education has teamed up with the Department of Health and Human Services to invest in early childhood learning. Under the DOE's signature competitive grant program, Race to the Top, states can earn money to create robust, coordinated programs to close the school readiness gap and, in turn, reduce crime and strengthen the national economy. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius announced the $500 million grant on May 25 and accepted public feedback on its criteria through July 11.
The school readiness gap can appear as early as one year of age, says Jacqueline Jones, senior adviser on early learning for the Department of Education.
"Data shows real differences in math, language and literacy achievement scores in kindergarten for children coming from homes of poverty, where English isn't the first language, where the mother's education is less than a high school diploma, single parent homes—all of these are major risk factors," says Jones. If not tackled early, she says, the readiness gap widens.
"Our collective health and financial security as a nation will depend on highquality investments during the critical early years of a child's life," said Secretary Sebelius.
Jones said the programs supported by these grants are to help states build a more coordinated system for early education. For example, Head Start programs are one learning program and are created by funding streams. In many cases, however, children are in and out of a few different programs before they reach kindergarten.
"We're not just adding to the array of early learning. We're trying to leverage the funds and bring Head Start, Title I, special education and other programs together in a coordinated manner," says Jones. Districts will be asked to serve more low-income students, align the programs of their early education programs with K12 standards, improve training of teachers, and share best practices.
Strong applicants, says the department, will engage families and document children's development and effective practices.
The Obama administration has consistently supported early learning programs and, in 2010, introduced the Promise Neighborhoods grant to help fund similar programs in urban communities to ensure students don't fall through the cracks.
Grants will range from $50 million to $100 million per state and will be awarded by Dec. 31. For more information, visit www.ed.gov.