U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan officially announced that the 2012 Race to the Top will include two competitions: one for public school districts (instead of states) and a second Early Learning Challenge for states. The two competitions will split the $549 million that has been appropriated by Congress. No matter how it’s split, that is not a lot of money to go around considering there are more than 13,000 school districts across the country and the first Early Learning Challenge split $500 million with nine winning states. Is this enough funding to spur big changes?
While the U.S. Department of Education has not yet released details on what the district-level competition will look like, we expect it will cover similar reform areas as the state-level competition. The original Race to the Top asked states to develop plans to improve standards, turnaround struggling schools, support and evaluate teachers and develop and implement statewide data systems. In 2010, the department awarded 11 states and the District of Columbia up to $700 million each to implement statewide education reforms. In 2011, a third round of the K-12 Race to the Top awarded grants to seven states for implementing the same reforms from the 2010 rounds with special attention to improving Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) initiatives.
What if the district version had a different emphasis and made a priority of building a seamless PreK-3rd continuum of learning for young children? This new competition presents an opportunity to reward and motivate districts to improve the quality and continuity of education in the early years and grades, reducing the need for remedial programs later on. For example, to win a grant, school districts could show a commitment to offering free full-day kindergarten for all children. Elementary schools could be rewarded for working with feeder preschools and child care centers to share data and professional development. Districts could also be encouraged to improve access to pre-K programs.
When the first Early Learning Challenge was developed last summer, the Early Education Initiative, along with several other groups, submitted ideas along these lines as part of its recommendations for how to use the competition to improve the continuity between the 0-5 years and the K-3 grades. The Department of Education could use these recommendations to inform the design of the district-level competition as well, building momentum for a more seamless PreK-12 model of public education.
As for the 2012 Early Learning Challenge, designed for children birth to age 5, early childhood advocates are happy that it will remain a state-level competition. There was some concern among stakeholders about the possibility of it becoming a district-level competition too. With the continued state focus, we don’t expect RTT-ELC to change much. In fact, the department may find it easiest to simply choose to fund the next few highest scoring states from the 2011 competition or invite the next several high scoring states to update their proposals and resubmit to be considered for a 2012 grant.
We expect the department to release details on the design of these competitions in the coming weeks, and we hope to see a public comment period for the district-level competitions. What do you think the district-level competition should include?
Check our special page for continuing coverage on the Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge.