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New Race to Top: $500M for Early Ed., $200M for Round 2 Runners-Up

Updated

Education Secretary Arne Duncan will divvy up the $700 million in additional Race to the Top money Congress gave him this year between a new contest focused on early education and the nine runners-up that lost in last year's high-profile state competition, the Education Department announced today.

The nine states that will compete again—using their old Race to the Top proposals in some fashion, which the U.S. Department of Education hasn't specified yet—are: Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and South Carolina. [UPDATE (3 p.m.): Make that eight—South Carolina just said "no thanks".]

Although details are still emerging, it seems these states will compete for a share of $200 million to implement a small piece of their old, second-round Race to the Top proposals. The nine states made it to the final interview round of the competition last year, but stalled there. (Just missing the chance to compete for a third time is Oklahoma, which was the 10th runner-up in round two.)

This means Colorado and Louisiana, thought to be shoo-ins to win in last year's competition, now have a shot at a piece of a much smaller pie. It also means New Jersey officials, who lost out by a mere 5 points after putting a wrong answer on their application, get a chance at some extra federal education money that previously slipped through their fingers.

For the third round of Race to the Top, financed by the federal fiscal 2011 budget, grants will range from $10 million to $50 million, depending on the state's size and final number of grants. (That's compared with up to $700 million that was up for grabs in the first two rounds.) Applications will be available in the early fall.

"In phase 2, we had many more competitive applications than we had funds to award," Duncan said in a statement. "We're committed to working with the states that are the most serious about education reform."

In fact, Duncan said at an Education Department event announcing the two new programs, he's seen "as much or if not more reform" from states that lost, as from those that won under the first two rounds of Race to the Top, which were funded as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, passed in 2009.

Any of the nine states that want a part of the new money will have to work with the department on which piece of their Race to the Top plan they want to implement. (In other words, the department isn't going to let states implement the easiest piece just to get some easy money.) And if not all nine states want or are able to get their piece, the remaining states will get bigger awards.

"It is not a competition between them," Duncan said in a press call today. "Where [states] want to continue to drive reform we want to invest. Where they've lost interest or lost courage we won't."

The other $500 million will fund the Early Learning Challenge competition. According to the department, this competition will reward states that create comprehensive plans to transform early learning systems with better coordination, clearer learning standards, and meaningful workforce development. Starting today, the public can find out more about this competition, with also involves the Department of Health and Human Services, and give input on the Education Department's website.

The rules, eligibility, and size of the grants will be announced in the coming weeks. It's important to keep in mind that the original Race to the Top was $4 billion, so even though $500 million sounds like a lot, it's still a much smaller state competition. And already, HHS spends about $12 billion a year on early childhood programs such as Head Start.

Still, Duncan said today he wants this early education competition to be a "game changer" just like Race to the Top was for more general education reform.

Early education advocates who gathered at today's event literally cheered about the new money, which will help expand the quality of and access to early childhood programs in states, especially for at-risk children. Advocates continue to emphasize that research shows that quality early childhood programs can have significant effects in terms of lower crime, improved educational outcomes and other quality-of-life factors, for at least some period of time.

The money will help ensure "that we expand the availability of this life-changing experience," said George Kaiser, the founder of the George Kaiser Family Foundation, who spoke at today's event.

The department has until the end of the year to award all of the $700 million, which Congress gave Duncan and the department in a fiscal 2011 budget deal brokered in April. Congress gave Duncan the same broad flexibility to implement this $700 million grant program as it did the original $4 billion in Race to the Top, with one change: that a new focus on early education be included. The new money allows the department to build on the successful Race to the Top brand.

With another $200 million in Race to the Top money up for grabs, it will be interesting to see whether all nine runners-up choose to compete, yet again, and for much less money.

The department is making it far easier for this third round by allowing states to use their round-two applications. But there's also new leadership in several states since the second-round competition. California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina all have new governors, who may or may not want to adhere to the old plans. It's unclear if they'll have flexibility to come up with different ideas.

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