Third round of Race to the Top: Early childhood education

With Wednesday’s announcement of a new round of federal Race to the Top grants, this one aimed at early childhood education, Connecticut education officials say they plan to pitch a new package of reforms and hope they have better luck this time around in landing the money.

“We better start filling out that application now,” said Sen. Andrea L. Stillman, the co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Education Committee. “Our track record with winning federal money is not great… We have had major bumps in the road.”


State Sen. Andrea Stilman: ‘Our track record with winning federal money is not great’

The state’s most recent bid for $175 million in federal money was largely focused on high school reforms adopted by the legislature last year. That application was rejected by the U.S. Department of Education last July, leaving the state to figure out how to pay for those reforms at a time of massive budget deficits. A bill postponing those reforms has overwhelming support among legislators.

The state’s application for a first-round grant of $193 million was rejected in March 2010.

This time, the U.S. Department of Education is holding a competition for $500 million to expand and enhance early childhood programs.

“We are certainly going after that,” said Allan B. Taylor, chairman of the State Board of Education.

Acting Education Commissioner George Coleman said the state’s plan will focus on expanding access, better addressing the needs on non-English speaking early learners and increasing accountability for existing state-subsidized programs that serve about 70,000 students.

Taylor and other state leaders noted that several states promised the world to win the RttT grants last year, only to delay implementing those reforms once the grants were awarded.

“That’s a little frustrating,” Taylor said.

“We hope we can deliver another realistic application,” said Tom Murhpy, a spokesman for the State Department of Education.

Roy Occhiogrosso, a senior adviser to Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, said the governor intends to aggressively pursue this new round of money.

“Early childhood education is something that is near and dear to his heart,” he said.

In announcing the new pool of grant money, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said formal guidelines will be available in the coming weeks and the winners will be announced before the end of the year.

“The bar will be very high. We’re looking for courage, commitment, capacity and creativity,” he said. “Our goal is to transform early learning programs and services from a patchwork of disconnected programs often of uneven quality and uneven access into a coordinated system.”

While officials aren’t sure what reforms they will pitch to the U.S. DOE, they say the state is in a good position to win this money.

“Much of the planning has already been done,” said Taylor. He mentioned a report from 2006 that specifically outlines how exactly to improve the state’s early education system. “We’ve got a good head start on the planning, but we have not made any significant progress on it.”

One proposal pushed by a coalition of lawmakers led by Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford is to consolidate all programs and services related to early childhood education under one state agency. Last month the plan appeared dead for this year because of budget concerns, but she said the announcement of possible federal funds could breathe new life into the idea.

“This announcement couldn’t come at a better time,” said Bye. “They want to help states that do system-wide reforms. That’s exactly what we’ve been saying needs to happen.”

Coleman said regardless if the state wins the money, launching the discussion of how the state plans to improve early education is a conversation worth having.

“It’s not time lost,” he said.