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What Should the Next Round of Race to the Top Early Learning Look Like?

The giant spending bill that sailed through Congress earlier this year included $250 million in new money for yet another round of the Race to the Top competition geared toward early learning. And now the U.S. Department of Education officials want ideas on how they should make the best use of that funding.

Here's what they don't want: Yet another round of Race to the Top Early Learning as we've seen it play out over the last couple years. After all, it can be argued that program has pretty much run its course, with some 20 states already using their grants to improve their programs. The department made it clear on its "Homeroom" blog that this new competition will be "distinct" from past efforts—the new money is a wide-open slate.

Some background: That $250 million in new Race to the Top money was a compromise. The administration had wanted a brand-new, $1 billion round of Race to the Top aimed at higher education, plus $750 million in new money in "Preschool Development Grants" to help states bolster early-childhood education in preparation for a big expansion of prekindergarten.

Congress has been cracking down on spending, so the White House didn't get both—instead it got this sort of hybrid fund—and the Education Department is trying to figure out what to do with it. In legislative language, Congress gave the department leeway to make changes to the way the competition is run so that the program can more closely mirror the "preschool development grants" that the administration pitched in its budget request. The administration envsioned new funding to help states get their early-childhood education systems up to snuff so that they could take advantage of big, proposed federal matching funds to dramatically expand preschool offerings for 4-year-olds. The matching funds seem unlikely to materialize anytime soon, thanks to a high pricetag—more than $30 billion over the first five years of the program.

Still, the department wants to make the best use of the tiny down payment on the program that Congress financed.

"We know we have $250 million that will go out to states," said Libby Doggett, the deputy assistant secretary for policy and early learning, on a call with education advocates. "But how that goes out, what kind of match is required—all of that is up in the air and will be decided based on the Department of Education, [the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services], and most importantly, your input. So stay tuned."

So far, the department has received more than 80 comments on how to best use the $250 million (which is a mere third of the $750 million the administration initially sought for the grants).

They range from a plea from Margaret Peterson, the executive director of The Child and Family Network Centers, to ensure that localities have a shot to apply for the grants even if their states don't, to a plea to fund Montessori programs. Check out all the comments here.

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