Vermont applies for childhood education funds

Wednesday July 20, 2011

BENNINGTON -- Vermont is preparing to apply for up to $50 million in federal funds to improve the quality of early childhood learning programs in the state.

The money, through the Department of Education’s Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge, would be a "game changer" in early education, said Dave Yacovone, commissioner of the state Department of Children and Families, which will lead the grant application process.

The federal government expects to release the criteria it will use to determine the awards in August, after which states will have two months to submit applications. Grants are expected to be awarded in December.

Thirty-seven governors, including Gov. Peter Shumlin, have announced their intent to submit applications for the competitive grants.

The federal DOE and Department of Health and Human Services will distribute money to states that "develop bold and comprehensive plans for raising the quality of early learning programs across America," Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said in a release.

Yacovone said he’s "very excited and encouraged" from preliminary information he’s received about priority areas the federal government may identify in the application that align with what is already done in Vermont.

Those areas, he said, include a focus on kindergarten entry assessments to promote school readiness, the use of a tiered quality rating and improvement system, and charting the correlation between early education throughout a student’s schooling.

"Vermont is in a good position because we’ve been doing kindergarten readiness surveys for years, so we have the baseline data," Yacovone said. Vermont also has the Step Ahead Recognition System (STARS), a tiered quality improvement system for child care and preschool providers.

"I don’t think it’s necessarily going to change how we do what we do, it’s going to strengthen what we do already, and that’s really important," Yacovone said.

The federal government has designated $500 million to be distributed through Early Learning grants, of which Vermont will be eligible to receive up to $50 million over a four-year period.

DCF’s Early Childhood Subsidy Program has an annual budget of roughly $40 million, so the grant could potentially add more than 25 percent to the program for four consecutive years.

"It’s a significant amount," Yacovone said.

If awarded, the money would largely be used to better train and prepare childcare providers.

"What we really want to see happen is better training for all the folks that do early childcare, whether you’re in a center, whether you’re doing it in collaboration with local schools or at the local private providers that are out there," Susan Bartlett, special assistant to the governor, said.

Research shows high-quality early learning programs provide increased opportunity and success as children age -- including increased rates of high school and college completion, so the additional funding would be significant.

Vermont did not apply for K-12 Race to the Top competitive grant funds last year because the state would not consider linking teachers’ salaries to student performance nor invest in charter schools, as were requirements in the first round of grants. Such restricting qualifications for the Early Learning funds are not expected to apply.

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