The federal Race to the Top competition brings to mind the contest that helped fuel new standards, testing and teacher evaluations in schools across New Jersey and elsewhere.
But a lesser-known aspect of the process aims to improve preschools and early childhood education as well.
The Christie administration is making its second try for the early childhood money through the Race to the Top program, this month filing an application for $44 million over four years that would fund and expand new standards and training for preschools and child-care centers serving low-income students.
The application – filed jointly by the state Education, Human Services, Health, and Children and Families departments – builds on the 2011 application rejected by the federal Department of Education, proposing to set up a new rating system for programs to help spur the improvements.
Working with Advocates for Children of New Jersey, the state nonetheless started a small pilot in three cities involving 56 programs. It now seeks the grant money to expand that initiative to include nearly 1,800 programs statewide.
The 1,790 centers that would operate under the new program would represent more than a quarter of preschools and child-care centers serving low-income and other high-needs children.
“With some direction and support — and yes, it takes funding — the program can really improve the quality of the services available for children,” said Cecilia Zalkind, executive director of ACNJ.
“I think it is on the right track, but with the help of the federal funding, it would really move it in the right direction,” she said in an interview yesterday.
The new application has a few significant changes from the first application, in how it is being presented and in the children it would reach.
The new application proposes a program it calls New Jersey Early Learning Plan. The collaboration between agencies is a central piece, as the various departments listed on the application would each play key roles in monitoring and assisting the centers.
The new application also proposes a different structure for the training of early childhood educators, providing in-state resources and support for professional development through new regional Training Academies.
The new application also appears to place more emphasis on the centers serving the youngest children, from birth to 3 years old, before they move into preschool, said Zalkind.
“I think this application is more comprehensive,” she said. “Not only the departments are working together, but it also starts at the youngest ages. I think that was one piece where we lost last time.”
In the end, Zalkind hopes it will be enough of a difference to win the funding this time.
“I sure hope so,” she said. “The goal is to improve the quality of child care in the state.”