In December 2011, the Department of Education awarded nine states a total of $500 million in Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge grants. The program's goals include "aligning and raising standards for existing early learning and development programs; improving training and support for the early learning workforce through evidence-based practices; and building robust evaluation systems that promote effective practices and programs to help parents make informed decisions,” according to a department press release.
The Obama campaign pointed us to additional areas where the administration has been promoting preschool education. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, better known as the stimulus bill, funnelled an extra $2 billion into Head Start and Early Head Start, which serve preschoolers as well as pregnant women, infants and toddlers. The money served purposes such as upgrading classrooms, improving transportation programs and improving staff pay and training. The White House said in a press release that the money enabled the programs to serve an additional 61,000 children.
The Obama administration also announced new standards in November 2011 for low-performing Head Start grantees, requiring them to compete for funding.
"Under the new rules, programs that fall short of quality benchmarks will have to compete. We will put out a notice to all early education providers in their communities: If you can do better, you'll get the Head Start funding,” Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius wrote on the White House blog.
We asked some outside groups for their evaluation of Obama"s work in promoting preschool.
W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, said for the most part the changes have been positive.
"They have created an Office at the U.S. Department of Education, something that was greatly needed, and instituted re-competition for Head Start grants based on performance for the first time ever. Funding has been increased for Early Head Start and Head Start, and Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge is a substantive financial commitment in education, again with an emphasis on competition. So they have committed more resources, but they did not provide more money for business as usual--this is a pay for performance approach,” Barnett wrote in an email.
But he questioned the selection of states that won the Early Learning Challenge grants.
"Whether the best states were selected for Race to the Top is another question, and there we are not so pleased,” he wrote. "However, if the administration follows up and requires states to keep the promises they made to get the grants (as they are doing with the original Race to the Top) then perhaps it is wise to have some poor performers on board.”
Obama has fulfilled his pledge to promote more preschool education both by dedicating substantial money in the form of state grants and by revising guidelines to improve quality. This warrants a Promise Kept.