Preschools are now eligible to join the scramble for a piece of the multi-billion dollar Race to the Top pie, according to a Wednesday White House announcement.
The Obama administration plans to dole out $500 million in state-level grants aimed at boosting the quality and availability of early learning programs.
"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, Chairman of the Administration's Middle Class Task Force, in a release.
"Expanding access to such early education and child care programs will also make it easier for working parents to hold down a job -- a key priority of the Middle Class Task Force -- giving them peace of mind that their children are in a high quality learning environment while they are at work."
The Early Learning Challenge is the latest program of the Race to the Top school-improvement competition, which has led many states to change education laws and practices to reflect Department of Education prescriptions.
Race to the Top has been controversial since its 2009 inception. Critics have alleged that the program sets unfair standards for teachers, gives incentives for more charter schools, and touches few minority students.
The Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge will be administered jointly by the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services.
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Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in the Wednesday announcement that the health and financial security of the U.S. will depend on investments made in the first years of a child's life and that kids who fall behind by age 5 won't be able to compete for future jobs.
Sebelius added that the administration is taking a "holistic" approach, focusing on kids' health as well as their education.
An additional $200 million will fund a competition among the eight runners-up of last years Race to the Top contest -- Arizona, California, Colorado, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey -- to implement a piece of their old, round-two proposals, reports Education Week.
Guidance, eligibility, range of awards and number of early learning grants will be announced in coming weeks. The application will be released later this summer with grants awarded to states no later than Dec. 31, 2011, according to the Department of Education's website.