On May 25th, the Obama Administration announced a new Race to the Top challenge fund to identify and reward best practices in education—$500 million of the $700 million challenge is designed to improve the odds for the very youngest children. The Early Learning Challenge grant competition invites states to create comprehensive plans to develop and transform early learning systems for children from birth through prekindergarten to enable all children to start school ready to learn. States must address how to better coordinate programs and services for young children, establish clearer learning standards, and strengthen the quality of those serving young children. Successful states will receive grants by December 31st to put plans into action to increase their ability to provide high quality early learning opportunities for their state’s children. As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said at the announcement of the new initiative, “To win the future, our children need a strong start. The Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge encourages states to develop bold and comprehensive plans for raising the quality of early learning programs across America.”
The Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge is being jointly administered by the Department of Education (DOE) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), a partnership that acknowledges the importance of a seamless, holistic approach to early childhood and recognizes what the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) has long believed: children do not come in pieces. Preparing children to succeed in school begins long before they enter a kindergarten or first grade classroom. Healthy child development from birth – in fact before birth with prenatal care – is critical to making sure children are ready to learn. Special attention must be given to the neediest children. HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said, “This challenge represents the Obama Administration’s commitment to helping vulnerable children and families reach their full potential. Our collective health and financial security as a nation will depend on high quality investments during the critical early years of a child’s life.”
The Administration’s focus on helping the most vulnerable children is aligned with CDF’s long sought and continuing early childhood policy and advocacy goals. In June, CDF is partnering with the Educational Testing Service (ETS) to bring together thought leaders to share what we know and best practices that can make a difference in the lives of the most vulnerable child population in America – Black boys. We need to jumpstart and expand solutions to prepare many more young Black boys for educational success. Right now, 15.5 million children in America live in poverty. Nearly one in four children under five is poor and over 40 percent are Black. At nine months of age, poor Black children are already behind their higher-income peers in cognitive development. The gap is wider at 24 months. By kindergarten, poor Black children have to beat higher odds to catch up and as various tests reveal, many never do. We want to change those odds. ETS’s and CDF’s Addressing Achievement Gaps Symposium “A Strong Start: Positioning Young Black Boys for Educational Success” will highlight some of the proven best practices in early education that the Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge seeks to reward. We must close the gap between what we know and what we do to make a positive difference in child lives.
In this very dangerous budget climate when unwise and unjust proposals to slash cost effective supports for poor young and vulnerable children loom, this giant step forward by the Administration is a bright spot for children. The Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge recognizes that investing in young children is a fiscally sound investment that builds their and America’s future. The Administration correctly points out that: “Research shows that high-quality early learning programs lead to long-lasting positive outcomes for children, including increased rates of high school graduation, college attendance, and college completion. Yet just 40 percent of 4-year olds in America are currently enrolled in preschool programs. The most recent report from the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) indicates that, for the first time in a decade, states are reducing some of their key investments in early learning.” The Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge funds seek to avert this backward trend. Business, law enforcement, military, and foundation leaders all spoke at the announcement ceremony about how this early childhood investment will help reduce crime, strengthen national security, and boost our national competitiveness.
It is time for all of our leaders and citizens to wake up and recognize that the greatest threat to America’s national security comes from no enemy without but from our failure to invest in the health and education of our children. Our biggest deficit is not in our budget but in our values and human capital. Many of the programs Race to the Top is designed to elevate and celebrate are under threat. The same day the Early Learning Challenge was announced, the U.S. Senate rejected three harmful budget proposals, including the House-passed Fiscal Year 2012 Budget resolution that seeks to cut lifelines and dismantle crucial protections for children and low income families from cradle to college. Over 10 years, the House-passed Republican (Ryan) Budget would slash $4.3 trillion in critical services and supports, nearly two-thirds of which directly serve children and low-income families, while giving huge tax cuts to the wealthiest Americans. Even with the Ryan Budget off the table, the threat of devastating unjust cuts and fundamental changes in programs serving children and other vulnerable populations loom. One dangerous proposal, known as the Corker-McCaskill spending cap, would force Congress to make deep cuts across the boards to life-saving safety net programs for vulnerable children and would harm children of color most. These dark budget clouds swirling around Congress pose grave threats to children and everyone concerned about children and the poor needs to wake up and say no. It is simply wrong to cut children’s Head Start and nutrition programs and not ask billionaires and millionaires and amnesty corporations to contribute a modicum of their government welfare.