Last May, President Obama announced a new, $500 million grant competition to improve early childhood education. Modeled on the Department of Education’s Race to the Top program, the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge will reward school systems for promising, evidence-based reforms. Though small, this new incentive program has real potential. It encourages states to improve kids’ early learning experiences--keys to healthy cognitive and social development.
States applying for the challenge grants are being encouraged to create comprehensive plans to transform their early learning systems in using the new Race to The Top money. Their plans need to show how they would take critical steps, such as boosting access to quality early learning programs for low-income and other vulnerable kids, paying for the design of systems that help early care and education programs mesh better, supporting training for the early education workforce, funding evaluation systems, and underwriting information to help parents make informed child-care decisions.
Of course, there’s always a hitch or hurdle. In this case, states will be hard-pressed to launch these initiatives without squarely addressing the inadequate supply of quality child care for low-income working families and the scarcity of funds to help them purchase that care. Giving parents information about where to find high-quality early learning programs is valuable, but unless we also expand the supply of good care so that low-income working parents can find it, and help them pay for it if they find it, the programs won’t live up to their potential.
Most working families look to their regular child care providers for early learning and school- readiness activities. They can’t take advantage of half-day pre-kindergarten programs unless they come with full-day child care and they have some way to pay for that care. And many low-income families depend on child care subsidies for access both to basic child care and early learning opportunities. States typically give them vouchers so they can choose their own child care providers.
The money for child care subsidies comes from the feds – through a block grant program called the Child Care and Development Fund. This fund’s dual, two-generational mission is supporting parents’ work and self-sufficiency and supporting healthy child development. If this critical program isn’t integrated into state strategies for improving early childhood education, then those strategies will leave the families most in need of help out in the cold. Yet, to date, CCDF funding is too low to serve all eligible families or to provide resources and supports to child care providers to significantly increase the quality of available care.
So, while the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge initiative seems poised to foster important innovations in early childhood systems building, its success ultimately depends on whether CCDF and other major early childhood funding sources are beefed up enough to help more than just some of the millions of low-income children whose parents are working to support their families.