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Race to the Top
photo courtesy of Dongio

The next installment of the Obama administration’s Race to the Top education-reform competition, focused on the youngest students, got off to a big start yesterday. Nearly three-quarters of the states threw their hats in the ring to win a portion of the $500 million the administration is offering to states with the best plans to overhaul their early childhood education systems.

For some hopefuls, a successful application may involve building an early education system nearly from scratch. Mississippi, one of the 35 state contenders (Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico also applied), offers no state-funded preschool or prekindergarten programs. The state has made some small steps toward creating more childcare options by funding an effort to support existing childcare centers and to open more of them, according to the National Institute for Early Education Research. Mississippi also has a quality rating system for its childcare centers, but participation is voluntary. But the state still has a long way to go to meet the Obama administration’s goals for the competition.

The applications will be judged on more than just whether they promise to create more preschool slots for low-income children, which is a requirement to win. The U.S. Department of Education will be looking for a common, statewide quality rating system, a statewide kindergarten-entry test (which will look at whether children are “ready” to start school), and efforts to connect the early years with the early elementary grades, among many other things.

Other states are already getting a jump-start. Connecticut is setting up a new state early learning agency, whileNew York announced that by 2014, all children will have to take a new test at the start of kindergarten.

There were several holdouts from the competition, however — and not all of them laggards in the area of early learning. Alyson Klein at Education Week writes that Idaho “applied in the earlier round of Race to the Top, [but] chose not to pursue the early-learning money after officials there raised concerns about creating a new program with one-time money.”

Early education advocates are welcoming the attention and money going toward their cause. One of the outcomes of the earlier Race to the Top competition, which focused on K-12, was that some of the losing states made major changes to their education systems anyway.

Here’s a short roundup of reactions and articles:

“California is eligible for the largest grant because of the number of low-income children in the state,” reports the Los Angeles Times.

Florida applied, but the governor said the state would back out if winning is linked to “new burdensome regulations … placed on private providers,” according to the Orlando Sentinel.

Minnesota would spend most of the $45 million it’s hoping to win on expanding access to preschool for low-income children, using the rest on professional development and accountability, the Pioneer Press reports.

Early Ed Watch at the New America Foundation has predicted the top contenders will be Colorado, Iowa, Maryland, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Vermont.

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