In a major step forward for young children, Arne Duncan and Kathleen Sebelius, U.S. Secretaries of Education and Health and Human Services, announced today that they will dedicate $500 million to the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge (RTT-ELC). The funds are part of a $700 million boost for the Race to the Top fund provided in the final 2011 federal funding bill. Comments by speakers at the briefing made clear that infants and toddlers are a key focus within this new early childhood initiative.
The two Departments will jointly administer the program, which is intended to increase the number of low-income or disadvantaged children, birth to five, in high-quality early childhood settings and create and enhance state integrated systems. State initiatives will cut across early childhood settings and funding streams to improve quality. Home visiting programs, so important for reaching at-risk infants and toddlers who are not in out-of-home early care arrangements, are clearly intended to be part of the mix.
While the announcement did not include information about how many grants will be awarded or the criteria that will be used in the competition, the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services will be seeking input and encourage all interested parties to visit their website to submit opinions, ideas, suggestions and comments pertaining to the RTT-ELC competition. It is important that practitioners and stakeholders knowledgeable about infants and toddlers weigh in on how the new initiative should be shaped. The Departments have indicated that the Notice of Application for RTT-ELC will come out late this summer.
Showing the broad support for early childhood education from a variety of sectors, the announcement also included speakers from philanthropy, law enforcement, and the military, all emphasizing that investment in our very youngest children is the key to future success. In particular, George Kaiser, Grantor of The George Kaiser Family Foundation as well as Chairperson of BOK Financial Corp., highlighted the need to start with infants and toddlers. He noted that less than 5% of children eligible for Early Head Start services are receiving them. He also pointed to this new Early Learning Challenge as an opportunity to help ensure that we expand access to services like Early Head Start through public and private partnerships. Ralph Smith, Executive Vice President of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, talked about RTT-ELC as a call to action in states and communities to do more and to do better for our most vulnerable citizens: our very youngest children.
The U.S. Department of Education also revealed that the nine finalist states that did not win grants in the first two rounds of Race to the Top will be eligible to compete for $200 million (out of the total $700 million included in the 2011 CR) in additional funds this year.