SEATTLE — Washington state has quietly increased its commitment to early learning over the past few years and, state officials say, is well prepared to compete for $50 million to $100 million under a new federal grant program for preschool education.
The Early Learning Challenge will be the third round of the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” competition.
Washington failed to win any money in the earlier rounds of Race to the Top, which 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, and the winners all do.
The state won’t have any similar difficulties in qualifying for the “Race to the Top” preschool dollars, however, since Washington already meets every benchmark, said Washington Department of Early Learning spokeswoman Amy Blondin.
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Requirements to win include establishing a pre-kindergarten testing system, implementing a quality assurance system for early learning programs and expanding access to quality preschool for low-income and disadvantaged kids.
“There’s nothing in the draft guidelines that is a nonstarter,” Blondin said. “We think we are in a pretty good position to be competitive.”
Blondin said Washington would be eligible for $60 million over four years — an amount based on the state’s population — if the state is a winner.
The money would be used to expand two projects.
Some of the money would be used to take the state’s kindergarten assessment program from a pilot in a few areas around the state to a statewide program that assesses all kids before they start kindergarten. The aim is to help parents and teachers give children a good start at school.
Washington also seeks federal dollars to expand its preschool quality assessment from a field test to a statewide program. The Department of Early Learning announced this week that the new child care quality rating system has been used to rate 65 early learning programs and give them guidance to improve.
Washington was the first state to have a Department of Early Learning outside the state education or health departments, and Deputy Director Bob Hamilton believes that focus on children from birth through 5 will give Washington a boost in the competition.
Grants will go to states that are setting an example with “ambitious yet achievable plans” for early learning education reform, the U.S. Department of Education said in announcing the competition in May.
Applications are due this fall, and the money will be awarded to the winning states by the end of 2011.
Mary Parsons, who has been licensed to run a home day care in Bremerton for the past six years, said her program has benefited from participating in the child care quality rating and improvement system, which is being piloted in five communities. The owner of Mele’s Bize Bees says the program not only helps her do a better job with the kids in her care, but it also teaches her how to share her knowledge with parents in a friendly and helpful way.
The state has not yet posted its ratings online, but Parsons volunteered that her center earned a three out of five. She said at the beginning of her first year in the program, she was given a preliminary assessment of one out of five.
“I’m proud of my three, and so close to a four,” she said. “It’s a lot of work. They make it tough. You really have to earn your rating.”
Representatives of the program visited her and videotaped her center, and she was assigned a mentor to help her improve. Parsons expressed appreciation for the help she was getting and said she is looking forward to her second year in the program, when she will aim for a score of five out of five.