What an opportunity...
Days ago, the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services announced the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge, an unprecedented opportunity for states to focus deeply on ensuring young children and their families have access to strong early childhood programs and services.
While scientists, economists and researchers have proven that the root of the achievement gap and many expensive social problems have their roots in the formative early childhood years, there are precious few resources and attention devoted to ensuring young children get off to a strong start. The national challemge requirements are stringent, comprehensive and outline a clear vision for what effective early childhood systems should include. President Obama made good on his campaign promise to devote more resources to the critical early childhood years, despite multiple setbacks along the way; for this the administration should be applauded.
The competition is an opportunity for states to align resources and programs across agencies to better serve young children and their families. Far too often, programs for young children have independent requirements, paperwork, policies and eligibility, putting an undue and unnecessary burden on programs and families to figure out a complicated maze of resources (or desperately search for support that is not available). Through this competition, states will need to outline bold reforms to streamline access, improve quality, implement appropriate accountability requirements and reduce inefficiencies.
There are five key areas for reform: successful state systems; high-quality, accountable programs; promoting early learning and development outcomes for children; a great early childhood education workforce; and measuring outcomes and progress. States are required to submit a comprehensive picture of past investment, current status and detailed, data driven plans for the future to qualify for these highly competitive funds.
This competition represents a necessary - but not sufficient - investment in early childhood systems reform. The $500 million available in competitive grants is a visionary down payment on this most important issue for our nation’s youngest citizens, but cannot singlehandedly complete the necessary work for states to create systems that serve young children and their families well. Yet I am optimistic of the far reaching reforms this investment can create, because Race to the Top for K-12 has shown that the mere potential for funding can spur important systemic reforms through preparing to apply, whether states ultimately are awarded funding or not.
In the dozen years since I retired from a career in newspapering as reporter, editor or publisher so as to focus all my energies on getting children ready for success in school and in life, this represents the single greatest opportunity states have had to make significant reforms to better serve young children. My hope is that the Early Learning Challenge spurs states to thinking critically and creatively about how to best serve young children, particularly the most vulnerable, and that new and innovative models emerge from this work that serve as beacons for others.
It's all there to do...and it most surely needs to be done. The very future of children and of our country is at stake.
David Lawrence Jr. is president of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation in Miami, the chair of The Children’s Movement of Florida, and “University Scholar for Early Childhood Development and Readiness” at the University of Florida. He was formerly the publisher of The Miami Herald.
All statements and opinions expressed on this blog are those of the individual contributors, and not of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation or NBC News.