- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 18, 2011

Every race has losers, and the Obama administration’s Race to the Top education grant competition is proving to be no exception.

As nine states await their prize money after coming out on top late last week in the Education Department’s Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge, the rest are left empty-handed, having spent thousands of hours carefully crafting plans that ultimately fell short.

“We invested a ton of time. That time equates to money,” said Bobby Cagle, commissioner of Georgia’s Department of Early Care and Learning.

Mr. Cagle estimated that he and his staff spent more than 2,000 hours on the effort, and said his agency is greatly disappointed by the result.

Thirty-five states, along with the District and Puerto Rico, submitted applications for the Early Learning Challenge, the latest round of the Obama administration’s popular competitive grant program. The nine winners — California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington — each will receive at least $50 million to implement reforms to their pre-kindergarten programs. The applications were graded by Education Department officials.

Several states, such as Delaware, are repeat winners. Delaware received $100 million last year as one of two winners in the first round of Race to the Top, which focused on K-12 school reforms. Massachusetts was a victor in round two, pocketing $250 million.

Other states have come up short, repeatedly. Connecticut applied in both K-12 rounds and missed out on the money both times. The state took another stab at badly needed federal grant funding with the Early Learning Challenge, but the outcome was the same.

Gov. Dan Malloy, a Democrat, blamed the state’s poor showing on the previous administration, which he said failed to have the “proper infrastructure in place, or have a well-developed or coordinated early learning system.”

“That will change,” he said in a statement. “This federal funding would have accelerated our efforts, but we are determined to move forward and keep our commitment that all of Connecticut’s students receive a high-quality education.”

Of the winning states, seven are governed by Democrats. But Education Secretary Arne Duncan told reporters on Friday that he and his staff looked only at the quality of the pre-K reform plans, with no regard for the political leanings of the states.

“We spent zero percent of our time and energy thinking about politics,” Mr. Duncan said.

Mr. Duncan and other administration officials encouraged the losing states to continue moving forward with their plans, and said they should not be discouraged by the results.

Mr. Cagle said Georgia will keep pressing on, with or without federal rewards.

“I don’t think it was time wasted. We developed some good plans,” he said. “We’re undeterred.”

Colorado, another three-time Race to the Top loser, also isn’t giving up.

“Colorado has seen so much progress already in the quality of early learning programs that help ensure every child starts school ready to learn,” Gov. John Hickenlooper and Lt. Gov. Joe Garcia said in a joint statement. “We will continue to build on the solid foundation,” despite losing out on grant funding.

Colorado and other states have one more crack at securing federal dollars for school reform. Colorado is one of nine finalists in the third round of Race to the Top’s K-12 competition, and the state could garner $17.9 million if it is declared a winner. The victorious states will be announced later this month.

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