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Originally published Tuesday, October 18, 2011 at 8:12 PM

State seeks $60M from feds for preschools

Washington state is asking the federal government for $60 million over the next four years to expand its kindergarten-readiness assessment and its child-care-rating system statewide. The Department of Early Learning mailed its application for the Early Learning Challenge grant program Monday night.

The Associated Press

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Washington state is asking the federal government for $60 million over the next four years to expand its kindergarten-readiness assessment and its child-care-rating system statewide.

The Department of Early Learning mailed its application for the Early Learning Challenge grant program Monday night, a few days before the deadline. Agency Director Bette Hyde is confident about the state's chances in the third round of the Obama administration's Race to the Top competition.

The state's plan will be presented to the House Early Learning and Human Services Committee on Wednesday.

Washington won no money in the earlier rounds of Race to the Top, which was focused on K-12 education.

But the state failed to pass a key benchmark the federal government used in determining the winners of those competitions. Washington does not allow charter public schools and, for the most part, the winners all do.

This time around, Washington won't have any trouble qualifying, but that doesn't mean the competition won't be tough, Hyde said. Washington will gain points for the quality and creativity of its initiatives but will lose some points for the reach and longevity of these programs, she said.

Some states have had statewide kindergarten assessments for years and some have rated all their preschool programs for a while. But Hyde said that doesn't mean their programs are as effective or as innovative as Washington's efforts, which have just started to spread beyond the pilot stage.

The U.S. Department of Education has said it will give out five to 10 grants totaling $500 million for early learning plans, with the grant amounts based on the population of the winning states.

Washington's more than 1,200-page proposal — including appendices — is based on an existing 10-year plan for early learning. The federal dollars would help the state move faster toward its goals, Hyde said.

"This plan is what we want to do, and whether we get the money or not, we're doing this," she said.

The state's focus on early learning is one of the only direct results of Gov. Chris Gregoire's Washington Learns initiative in 2005. The initiative led to the establishment of the Department of Early Learning in 2006, which has gotten a lot of help from the private nonprofit Thrive by Five Washington and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

In her cover letter for the Race to the Top application, Gregoire emphasized that Washington is already working toward a great early learning system, despite the economy.

"We are building a world-class early learning system because it is the right thing to do and it is the smart thing to do," the governor wrote. She said the state already has a bold plan and it has momentum; all it needs now is more money.

About 70 percent of the federal dollars would be invested in Washington's preschool "quality rating and improvement system" for training and coaching of child-care providers, and to do the rating and build the database for child-care and preschool programs across the state. Preschools and child-care programs can earn a rating of 1 to 5 under the system.

The federal grant would also help pay for scholarships to send child-care workers back to college.

The programs rated so far serve just 800 children, but the goal is to rate programs that serve more than 70,000 children by 2015, with a focus on kids living in poverty.

The school-readiness program, which is called WAKids, involves a discussion among parents, their child's preschool teacher and his or her future kindergarten teacher. Hyde said the conversation results in an individual learning plan for the child. The program is scheduled to go statewide by the 2014 school year.

Hyde believes both early learning programs will help Washington children make progress on the school-achievement gap between kids of different races and economic backgrounds.

"If children start behind, they very likely stay behind," Hyde said.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan agrees, and that's why the federal government decided to focus on early learning.

"If we're serious about closing the achievement gaps, you can't wait until kindergarten," Duncan has said repeatedly.

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