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States Up for Early-Learning Grants Rank Well in Preschool Report

Now that the U.S. Department of Education has made it official that five additional states will get a shot at splitting $133 million in a Round 2 of the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge, we can start speculating which of them could and should be the favorites.

What better place to begin than with the National Institute for Early Education Research's hot-off-the-presses annual preschool yearbook—a detailed look at the resources and quality of public preschool programs in the 39 states that offer them.

To recap which states will get another run at the federal dollars for early education: Colorado, Illinois, New Mexico, Oregon, and Wisconsin. These five states came close to making it into the winner's circle in Round 1 of the Early Learning Challenge.

While the Education Department hasn't yet revealed exactly the criteria it will use to judge the states (should they elect to apply, of course) in the upcoming contest, I think we can safely assume that quality will be paramount.

So let's dig into the NIEER report for 2011 and see how these five potential "bridesmaids" stack up when it comes to how much they invest in early childhood programs and how close they come to meeting 10 standards that the research organization says are essential to a high-quality program. Those benchmarks include having comprehensive early learning standards (which nearly every state now does) and requiring prekindergarten teachers to have the same qualifications (a bachelor's degree) and receive the same pay as kindergarten teachers—something only seven states currently do.

Colorado: Meets six of NIEER's 10 quality benchmarks, falling short on the standards for teacher education and providing screening and referral services for health, hearing, and vision. The state ranks 21st out of 39 for access for 4-year-olds and 36th for state resources devoted to the program.

Illinois: Meets nine of 10 benchmarks, missing the NIEER standard for serving at least one complete meal per day. Illinois requires only that a snack be served. The state ranks 15th in access for 4-year-olds and is first in the nation for serving 3-year-olds. Illinois ranks 28th for what it invests in preschool.

New Mexico: Meets eight of 10 benchmarks, falling short of NIEER's standards for teacher education. It ranks 28th in access for 4-year-olds, and serves no 3-year-olds. The state clocks in at #25 for the resources it spends on early-education programs.

Oregon: Meets eight of 10 benchmarks, coming up short on the two standards related to prekindergarten personnel, although lead teachers in public programs must have bachelor's degrees. The state ranks 30th in access for 4-year-olds and 13th for 3-year-olds. Oregon is one of the most generous states when it comes to spending on preschool, ranking third overall at $8,454 per student.

Wisconsin: Meets five of 10 benchmarks in its kindergarten program for 4-year-olds, falling short on the standards for class size (classes exceed 20 students), screening and referral services for hearing, vision, and health, and serving at least one meal per day. A smaller state supplemental program for Head Start meets seven benchmarks. Overall, Wisconsin ranks sixth in access for 4-year-olds and 26th in state resources invested in early learning programs.

All in all, a respectable showing in the NIEER report card for the five eligible states. Interestingly, however, some of the Round 1 winners—California and Ohio, in particular—receive some of the lowest marks for meeting quality benchmarks in the NIEER report.

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