So far, Race to the Top has been a competition between states. In both the K-12 version and the Early Learning Challenge, states have been the ones developing plans for reforms that would trickle down to school districts or organizations running pre-K, child care and other early learning centers.
But for 2012, the U.S. Department of Education has signaled that it will do things differently. It has received $549 million in appropriations from Congress for the next round of Race to the Top (RTT), and it is likely to allow districts, instead of states, to compete for new money. In a January interview with Ed Week, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said that he was considering a district competition because, as he put it, “there are fantastic districts doing some really creative stuff in states that are less functional...” The White House reiterated this new approach in a fact sheet released yesterday: “The Administration is building on the state-level progress of RTT by launching a district-level competition to support reforms best executed at the local level.”
For those following the Race to the Top - Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC), this begs the question: How would this work? In recent initiatives to build more cohesive, high-quality systems of birth-to-5 programs, standards and guidance are set by states, not localities. What’s more, non-profit organizations that run early learning and Head Start programs are often not lined up geographically with school districts. Consider, for example, a pre-kindergarten program run by a non-profit that enrolls children throughout a metropolitan area. Those children may live in different school districts. If an RTT-ELC award goes to one district but not the other, would the pre-kindergarten program be able to benefit from it?
This is part of what worries early childhood advocates about the idea of a RTT-ELC competition between districts. Last Friday, 46 members of Congress, a group made up primarily of Democrats but also three Republicans, sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Education. Top-level signers include Rep. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), Danny K. Davis (D-IL), and George Miller (D-CA). They argue for another state-wide RTT-ELC:
“We strongly support a second round of the Early Learning Challenge competition within Race to the Top to build on the work the applicants started and to encourage new states to improve their early childhood systems as well. The Early Learning Challenge competition provides a critical opportunity to coordinate early learning systems in a way that can only happen at the state level.”
Sara Mead, who blogs for Ed Week, isn’t so sure this will happen. (Full disclosure: Sara Mead formerly directed the Early Education Initiative.) She wonders if the early childhood community should start thinking about how they could work with a district-wide competition instead.
It might be too optimistic to even think about, but why couldn’t the U.S. Department of Education use the 2012 dollars for both? Clearly a large number of states are interested in developing coordinated systems that fit the Obama Administration's state-wide vision in last year's competition: 35 states plus D.C. and Puerto Rico applied last year. So why not launch another state-wide RTT-ELC that is similar to the 2011 competition and a district-wide RTT that includes some emphasis on early learning – including pre-K as well as kindergarten, first, second and third grade? Given the continuing stream of research pointing to the importance of these years in children’s school success, it would make sense to continue channeling federal dollars to states and districts that are applying research-based approaches to helping children on both these fronts.
One positive outcome that could come from a district-wide ELC is a focus on how to help elementary schools work with feeder preschools and child care centers to share data and professional development. Another possibility is for districts to come up with plans for improving access to pre-K programs (hopefully through contracts with community providers as well as by improving programs based in public schools).
We’ll continue to watch the 2012 RTT-ELC as it develops. Meanwhile, see the recommendations we submitted last summer on how to ensure that the RTT-ELC includes measures that help to sustain gains into the elementary school years. (We suggested, for example, moving the “sustaining gains” section up to a competitive priority in the application. In 2011, it was an invitational priority that did not win states any points.)
See also the earlier comments on creation of the RTT-ELC, which were developed by the Early Education Initiative along with representatives from six other groups that focus on PreK-3rd education.