Maryland to join new Race to the Top field
States to compete for $500 million for early-childhood programs
Maryland officials are ready to compete in the next round of Race to the Top federal education reform that focuses on early childhood.
The U.S. Department of Education on Wednesday announced a $500 million competitive grant program for individual states to reform and improve their early-childhood programs, such as pre-kindergarten.
William Reinhard, a spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education, said Wednesday that the department plans to apply for a grant through the federal initiative.
The "Early Learning Challenge" announced by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius is designed to award money to states to increase access to early-childhood programs for students, especially low-income and disadvantaged children.
In a statement from the department, Duncan and Sebelius also said the grants would encourage states to train more workers in the child care field, create new data systems that align early-childhood programs with education systems from kindergarten through 12th grade, start new evaluation efforts that identify and share best practices, and inform parents about the best choices for their children.
The new Race to the Top program will be jointly administered by the federal Education and Health and Human Services departments, which will make applications available in the early fall.
Although Maryland won $250 million in a previous Race to the Top initiative last summer to reform struggling schools and change teacher evaluations, it is still eligible to compete for some of the $500 million from the Early Learning Challenge, said Elizabeth Utrup, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Education.
Maryland is not eligible for a separate $200 million program, also announced Wednesday, that is exclusively for the nine states that did not win Race to the Top grants last summer.
Shaun Adamec, a spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley (D), indicated that O'Malley was interested in applying for the new Race to the Top money but was awaiting additional details in the coming weeks.
A state law passed in 2010 required the state education department to apply for money from the federal Early Learning Challenge. However, the bill expired before the grants had been offered.
Del. Tom Hucker, a sponsor of the 2010 law, House Bill 350, said it was crucial for the state to make sure children learned as much as possible in their earliest years.
"We make sure that kids coming across the threshold into kindergarten are really ready to excel at learning," said Hucker (D-Dist. 20) of Silver Spring.
The $250 million Race to the Top victory last year was applauded by O'Malley and State Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick.
But, the reforms being discussed to administer new tests and tie teacher evaluations more closely to academic measures like tests have sparked a backlash.
The state said earlier this month that it was seeking an amendment to its Race to the Top application to delay full implementation of its new teacher evaluations until 2013-2014.
State Sen. Paul Pinsky, a critic of the way teacher evaluations have been handled under Race to the Top, said the key question for the Early Learning Challenge would be whether the federal government thought Maryland needed a lot of reform in its current programs, or if efforts should just be expanded.
A March report from the state education touted the increase in kindergarten readiness among Maryland children from 49 percent in 2001-2002 to 81 percent this year.
"Maryland has made a pretty good effort at preschool education," said Pinsky (D-DIst. 22) of University Park.