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Strong Bipartisan Support for Preschool Development and Expansion Grants

Last Friday marked the deadline to submit applications for the federal government’s new Preschool Development Grant competition. This $250 million grant program aims to expand access to high-quality early education programs for 4-year-olds in high-need communities. The program is jointly administered by the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services and will provide states with funds by means of a competitive grant process. My earlier post discusses the grant requirements in greater detail.

Thirty-five states and Puerto Rico applied for funding, signifying serious interest in early childhood education throughout the country and across party lines. The numbers reaffirm that there is strong bipartisan support for this issue: 16 of the states are headed by Republican governors and 19 by Democratic governors. Because states’ current pre-K investments vary significantly, the Departments divided the available grant money into two sub-grants: states with little or no public pre-K program were eligible to apply for “development grants,” and states with more robust systems or those receiving federal funds through Race to the Top- Early Learning Challenge were eligible for “expansion grants.”

Nine of the 16 states/territories eligible for development grants applied: Alabama, Arizona, Hawaii, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Puerto Rico. According to NIEER’s 2013 State of Preschool Yearbook, four of these states—Hawaii, Mississippi, Montana, and New Hampshire—currently do not have any state-funded pre-kindergarten program in place. These applicants are vying for a portion of $80 million dollars.

Twenty-seven of the 36 eligible applicants applied for expansion grants: Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington. Winners in this category will be splitting $160 million.

Strong public support for early education investments doesn’t mean everyone is on board, and the application process was not exactly smooth sailing in some states. Republican Indiana Governor Mike Pence decided to scrap the state’s application at the last minute. The state notified the federal government that it intended to apply in September and state officials had already dedicated hundreds of hours to the application. The grant money would have increased access to Indiana’s new pre-kindergarten program, but Pence didn’t support expanding a program that had not yet been evaluated.

Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, most recently known for suing the Obama Administration over the Common Core State Standards, almost stopped the Pelican State from applying for the grant as well. Jindal decided to approve the application less than two weeks before the deadline, after the state’s superintendent reassured him that none of the grant money would be tied to the Common Core standards in any way.

Since this is a competitive grant program, many applicants will not be awarded any federal funding for their proposals. The Departments expect to award grants to a total of 12 to 15 states. While reviewers will be evaluating applications based on a host of criteria, the application included three competitive preference priorities for which states can receive additional points. First, states that focus on strengthening the birth-through-third-grade continuum for a traditionally vulnerable subgroup, such as dual language learners, can receive up to 10 additional points. A strong education continuum is important for all youngsters, but can be particularly effective with those children who are more likely to fall behind. The second priority is for states that agree to contribute matching funds. This is important because the grant money only lasts for four years and the programs created during that time need to be sustainable, which requires state investment. Third, states that allocate at least 50 percent of the funds to adding slots in pre-K programs are also eligible for more points. This may be a difficult lift for states that do not already have strong infrastructure in place or are unwilling to invest a large amount of state dollars.

Winners will be announced by the end of the calendar year. Stay tuned for coverage and analysis from EdCentral when the announcement happens!