Racin’ on Preschool Legs

In an announcement far less anticipated than previous rounds, EdSec Arne Duncan and the U.S. Department of Education today announced the parameters for Round Three of Race to the Top.  After Congress agreed to throw another $700 million in the RttT kitty as part of the FY2011 CR budget deal, most expected they knew how the current round would be distributed.

Original word around town was that ED would simply move down the list of Round Two finalists, making dreams come true.  So New Jersey, which finished less than three points (on a 500-point scale) behind the final Round Two winner, Ohio, was seen as a shoo-in (and a potential recipient of hundreds of millions of federal dollars).  Then came Arizona, Louisiana, South Carolina, and Illinois.  Presumably, the $700 million wouldn’t even last long enough for Illinois to line up for its check, leaving the full boat to be distributed among four states (and four states run by Republican governors, coincidentally).
But a funny thing happened on the way to today’s announcement.  Instead of funding, or nearly funding, the remaining plans that scored the highest, ED determined it best to share the wealth across all of the Phase Two finalist states.  So now we can add California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky to the list.  Nine states sharing RttT dollars, with all likely getting just a fraction of their ask, yet all of the red tape, bureaucracy, and expectation to go with it.
Why?  Because Duncan threw the education community a curve ball.  Of the $700 million going to RttT Round Three, only $200 million of it will go to these nine states.  The remainder, a whopping $500 million, will now go to fund a new Race competition for early childhood education.
If you’ll recall, last month Eduflack wrote about a key change to the RttT law — the addition of early childhood education as a new priority to Race.  At the time, I wondered whether this was finally a real commitment on behalf of the Administration to invest in ECE, or whether this was more rhetoric, without the teeth of real dollars to back it up.
That question was answered loudly and clearly today by Duncan.  Five hundred million dollars to go to a competitive grant program to fund the improvement of early childhood care and education, and it will now carry the Early Learning Challenge moniker.  Half a billion dollars to support preK programs.  Some of the specs released today include:
* State-based award focused on comprehensive plans for early learning
* Emphasis on coordination (presumably with K-12), clearer learning standards, and “meaningful workforce development”
The statement from ED is unclear on some of the larger issues, though.  It notes that just 40 percent of four-year-olds are in preK.  So is the intent to improve preK programs or boost enrollment in existing programs?  At a time when states are reducing their own investments in preK (just look at the Pew numbers), is $500 million spread across the nation enough to jumpstart a universal preK movement?  And when we again challenge the innovation community, this time to get involved in ECE, what role do we see for the private sector and the edu-prenuers to be playing in early childhood education?
On the K-12 side, we see a few other issues.  So now those nine RttT finalist states can recompete for $10-$50 million grants, needing to develop new applications (with ED’s help, of course).  One only needs to do the math, though, to realize we are looking a lot more like a number of $10 million grants than a handful of $50 million ones.  Is $50 million even enough to enact real improvement in a state like California, Illinois, or Pennsylvania?
Most importantly, though, is this an indication that we’ve already given up on RttT?  When it was originally announced, we heard all about how it was most effective when a few states were given big dollars to enact real changes (Former Duncan advisor Mike Smith originally hypothesized there should only be two or three total RttT winners for the original $4 billion prize).  Now that we move to Round Three, we are shifting to small checks for a large number of states, now for targeted activities.  When Delaware and Tennessee received more that they were originally slated to gain in Round One, do we really expect the nine expected to benefit here to be able to do real work and enact real improvements with a fraction of what they asked for (and presumably need)?  Time will tell …
UPDATE: Make that eight.  South Carolina has already pulled out of the RttT3 competition, according to Education Week’s Politics K-12 blog, with its State Superintendent, Mick Zais stating RttT is “offering pieces of silver in exchange for strings attached to Washington.”
 
     

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