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New Jersey Applies for $60 Million Race to the Top Grant

Funding would go in part to a statewide system for evaluating early childhood education centers.

Under a plan being proposed to the federal government, New Jersey would evaluate and grade every registered early childhood center and preschool serving low-income students in the state.

The proposal is part of the Christie administration's application, announced yesterday, for up to $60 million in federal funding under the federal Race to the Top -- Early Learning Challenge. The rating system has been piloted in three cities.

The grant proposal also includes statewide assessments for kindergarteners, increased programs for training early childhood educators, and better coordination between different state agencies in charge of early childhood care.

Thirty-one states currently have a rating system for early childhood programs, typically on a 1-to-5 scale. The lowest grade is for programs that minimally meet registration or licensing requirements

“If we are awarded this grant, it would help take a giant step forward in building quality early childhood programs in this state,” said Cecilia Zalkind, executive director for the Advocates for Children of New Jersey, which assisted in the ratings part of the application.

The New Jersey program, as proposed in the grant, would rate state-funded programs -- including those in public schools -- on six criteria: program and learning environment, family engagement, health and safety, professional development, personnel, and business practices.

“The expansion of this pilot will not only offer data and support to existing programs to help them constantly improve, but will serve as a ‘consumer report’ for parents to assist them in making informed decisions for their children,” read the state’s application.

The application said the expanded ratings system would ultimately reach 75,000 low-income children. The state now funds two years of full-day preschool for about 45,000 low-income students, largely through programs ordered under the Abbott v. Burke in 31 cities. Another 15,000 are served through federally funded Head Start and Early Head Start.

The federal money would help train and pay for evaluation teams and provide support and incentives to preschools and centers.

“There has been a growing interest in doing this in New Jersey, but never has the funding been available,” said Zalkind. “And if you want to move forward, it needs the money.”

This federal grant program is an extension of the more famous Race to the Top challenge launched by President Obama last year. It is aimed at improving assessments, facilitating school turnarounds, and boosting teacher quality in grades K-12.

New Jersey narrowly lost out on a grant of up to $400 million, in part due to a technical error that led to the firing of Gov. Chris Christie’s first education commissioner, Bret Schundler. The state plans to apply to the third round of the K-12 program, which this time out would only provide up to $28 million.

The early childhood program, in contrast, has states competing for more than $500 million. New Jersey would be eligible for up to $60 million over four years.

The area getting the most attention has been the program’s requirements for improved assessments to ensure what it calls kindergarten readiness.

The state’s application said it would extend a student assessment program that it has tested in two districts – Orange and Red Bank – which observes kids' behaviors and skills in their first two months of school. It said the system would go statewide by 2013.

The program evaluates language and literacy development, math skills, and social development, as well as learning skills, like self-direction and initiative.

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