ATLANTA — A new $500 million federal grant competition announced Wednesday aims to do away with an uncoordinated system of preschool programs that often leave the poorest children without options and allow bad schools to go unchecked.
The Obama administration's Early Learning Challenge is the third round of its "Race to the Top" state competition, which doled out nearly $4 billion in federal education money last year. The new competition is designed to encourage better coordination, clearer learning standards and increased access to early learning programs for low income children.
"Our goal is to transform from a patchwork of disconnected programs often of uneven quality and uneven access into a coordinated one that truly and consistently prepares our nation's young people for success in school and life," said Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a call with reporters.
"This is a game changer," he said.
Duncan also announced that nine finalist states that did not win grants in the earlier rounds of Race to the Top for grades K-12 can compete for $200 million in grants in the next round, ranging from $10 million to $50 million. The states are Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and South Carolina.
Already, South Carolina's education chief Mick Zais has said the state will not apply for the money because it "expands the federal role in education."
For the K-12 Race to the Top, states were asked to focus on adopting common academic standards, ushering in more charter schools and enacting performance pay for teachers. Such test-heavy data won't be required for early learning programs.
Instead, they will be asked to make more slots available for poor children, align their early education programs with K-12 systems, improve training for teachers and create a way to share best practices and strategies.
"The payoff isn't just higher test scores – it's more productive adults, stronger families and more secure communities," said Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
Her department oversees the $7 billion Head Start program, which provides preschool for 900,000 low income children. The Obama administration recently added 300,000 children to the program with federal stimulus money and hopes to begin requiring low performing Head Start providers to compete for their funding rather than getting it automatically.
State applications for the early learning Race to the Top money will be due later this summer. The money will be handed out before the end of the year.
Education advocates said the federal focus on early learning is critical to making quality preschool and prekindergarten to all children.
"It's a great way to encourage states to prioritize early childhood as we come out of the great recession," said Steve Barnett, co-director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. "Every sector will be looking for money as state revenues rebound. This gives states reason to prioritize young children."
The early learning grant competition was announced during a news conference in Washington, D.C., with Duncan, Sebelius and other officials, including Retired Army Brig. Gen. Clara Adams-Ender, a member of the group "Mission Readiness." She and other retired military leaders are trying to push education reform to ensure students are prepared to enter the military.
Adams-Ender said the Early Learning Challenge an important step "to ensure that an education crisis does not become a national security crisis."
Dorie Turner can be reached at . http://www.twitter.com/dorieturner
Associated Press writer Frederic J. Frommer in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.