Challenge Grants to Bolster State Early Learning Systems

May 30, 2011

by Krista D'Amelio

Last week, the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services announced the dedication of $500 million in Race to the Top funding to support comprehensive state plans for raising the quality of early learning programs, a step that could open new opportunities for cities working in this important area.

The new, competitive Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant program will reward states that:

  • Create comprehensive plans to increase access to high quality early learning programs for low-income and disadvantaged children;
  • Design integrated and transparent systems that align early care and education programs;
  • Strengthen training and support for the early learning workforce;
  • Create efficient evaluation systems that document and share effective practices and successful programs; and
  • Help parents make informed decisions about care for their children.

Opportunity for Cities

In recent years, municipal officials have taken an increasingly active role in strengthening early care and education programs in their communities. Cities are connecting first-time parents to information and community resources, promoting early literacy through Mayor's Book Clubs, advancing family-friendly workplace policies and offering training to family, friend and neighbor caregivers.

Local efforts have been motivated by research that highlights the importance of early learning to future academic and career success and traces the academic achievement gap to early childhood.

"For kids, high-quality early learning programs mean they will enter school better prepared with a greater chance of finishing high school and college," said Vice President Joe Biden.

The Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge presents cities with an opportunity to enhance local efforts by partnering with state agencies and early childhood advisory councils on challenge grant applications. Municipal leaders serve on many of these councils and may be well positioned to highlight innovative local models that are ripe for statewide replication.

Cities may also play a role in addressing the competition's expected focus on developing a continuum of care that reaches children from before birth to age 8. Local officials in a number of cities are partnering with school districts and early learning programs to align educational systems and ensure that all children are reading at grade level by the end of third grade.

The Educational Alignment for Young Children initiative, sponsored by NLC's Institute for Youth, Education and Families, is supporting these efforts to increase the likelihood that children in the early elementary years will be poised for future educational success.

City officials can submit comments on the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grants by visiting

Commenters may consider encouraging a strong role for cities in the grant application process, requirements or incentives for local government involvement as part of federal selection criteria, and provisions for the availability of subgrants to municipalities as an allowable use of funds.

Guidance, eligibility, range of awards and number of grants will be announced in the coming weeks. The Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge notice of applications will be available later this summer, with awards being made no later than the end of this calendar year.

Details: More information will be made available at To learn more about local early childhood success strategies, visit or contact Tonja Rucker at (202) 626-3004 or