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Race to the Top for Tots

NJ vying for $60 million Early Learning Challenge, new Race to the Top program for preschoolers and kindergarteners.

Credit: Andrew Howard for NJ Spotlight

The federal government is extending its reach in early childhood education, moving beyond its landmark Head Start program with a new Race to the Top grant that could help New Jersey serve more young kids. But the new plan is stirring up some debate, especially when it comes to "kindergarten-readiness" testing.

New Jersey is applying for up to a $60 million grant under the program, which is being rolled out this summer. The state yesterday released details of the application and invited public comment on the federal Department of Education website.

"We have a very strong early childhood program in New Jersey and are in a very good position to file a strong application," said acting Education Commissioner Chris Cerf.

An Early Challenge

Announced in May, the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge is separate from the better known Race to the Top competition for elementary and secondary schools, which caused quite a controversy when New Jersey missed out on $400 million this past summer. The state is expected to reapply for a far smaller grant later this year.

The Early Learning Challenge specifically addresses children from birth to age five. It seeks both to extend programs, especially to low-income students, and to raise the quality of current programs. Advocates said that if New Jersey wins, it would be an opportunity to better coordinate public and private programs.

"It really creates a whole early-learning system," said Cynthia Rice of the Advocates for Children of New Jersey. "We usually have a siloed situation where each to their own programs. We have not had this broader focus, where we can look at developing standards, having real guidelines and looking at kindergarten readiness."

It is that so-called kindergarten readiness that has drawn some added national attention to the grant program, since it requires that state applications include assessments of whether children are prepared for kindergarten.

The notion of kindergarten assessments has raised concerns of testing children too young. Under the program, states would have to develop assessments of all students entering public kindergartens by 2014-2015 and report the results as part of its statewide data system.

Paper and Pencil

But Rice said there are misconceptions about the nature of the tests.

“We’re not talking a paper and pencil test, but all kinds of assessments," she said. "I know that's the first thing that comes to mind, but that's not what it is. It's observation, what skills a child has, what is their vocabulary."

The state's application remains under development, with a fall deadline and announcement of winners by the end of the year.

A total of $500 million is available to all 50 states, but large states like New York, California, Florida and Texas are each eligible for up to $100 million, potentially eating up the bulk of the money. New Jersey is one of 14 states eligible for up to $60 million over three years.

The process is now in a comment period in which organizations and individuals can speak to and ask questions about the application process. The deadline for comments is Monday. New Jersey’s application is to be submitted in the fall, Cerf said.

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