Photo: Kate Samp for Strategies for Children

The Obama administration yesterday released the final application for the $500 million Race to the Top – Early Learning Challenge announced in the spring. States are eligible for grants of $50 million to $100 million, based on their share of the nation’s young children, birth to age 5, in low-income families.  Massachusetts is eligible for $50 million over four years. The program will be jointly administered by the U.S. Departments of Education (DOE) and Health and Human Services (HHS).

“The goal of the RTT-ELC is to better prepare more children with high needs for kindergarten because children from birth to age 5, including those from low-income families, need a strong foundation for success in school and beyond,” an Education Department news release states. “Robust research shows that high-quality early learning programs improve children’s health, social-emotional development, cognitive ability, and school success. High-quality programs also help close the wide school readiness gap that exists between children with high needs and their peers. Yet, the U.S. lacks a coordinated system for improving and evaluating early learning and development programs as well as sharing best practices across programs and states.”

The application focuses on five key areas, according to the news release:

The application sets one absolute priority, according to the executive summary released yesterday:

Priority 1: Absolute Priority — Promoting School Readiness for Children with High Needs

“To meet this priority, the State’s application must comprehensively and coherently address how the State will build a system that increases the quality of Early Learning and Development Programs for Children with High Needs so that they enter kindergarten ready to succeed. The State’s application must demonstrate how it will improve the quality of Early Learning and Development Programs by integrating and aligning resources and policies across Participating State Agencies and by designing and implementing a common, statewide Tiered Quality Rating and Improvement System. In addition, to achieve the necessary reforms, the State must make strategic improvements in those specific reform areas that will most significantly improve program quality and outcomes for Children with High Needs. Therefore, the State must address those criteria from within each of the Focused Investment Areas (sections (C) Promoting Early Learning and Development Outcomes for Children, (D) A Great Early Childhood Education Workforce, and (E) Measuring Outcomes and Progress) that it believes will best prepare its Children with High Needs for kindergarten success.”

In addition, the challenge spells out two competitive priorities and two invitational priorities:

Priority 2: Competitive Preference PriorityIncluding all Early Learning and Development Programs in the Tiered Quality Rating and Improvement System

Priority 3: Competitive Preference PriorityUnderstanding the Status of Children’s Learning and Development at Kindergarten Entry

Priority 4: Invitational PrioritySustaining Program Effects in the Early Elementary Grades.

Priority 5: Invitational Priority–Encouraging Private-Sector Support.”

In a conference call yesterday, Jacqueline Jones, the U.S. education department’s senior advisor on early learning, and Joan Lombardi, deputy assistant secretary at HHS’s Administration for Children and Families, noted that the final application gives states flexibility to tailor their plans to the status of their early learning systems. One area of the draft criteria released in July that attracted attention was the call for kindergarten readiness assessments. In yesterday’s conference call Jones emphasized that developmentally appropriate assessments are a critical tool to “improve the quality of instruction and ensure that the needs of all children are being met.” She and Lombardi stressed that assessments should address multiple domains of children’s development.

Applications are due October 19. Grants will be awarded by December 31, 2011.