- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 24, 2011

Fourteen states are still undecided about applying for the Obama administration’s $500 million Early Learning Challenge, a grant program that will reward states for improvements to prekindergarten education.

The effort, part of the popular Race to the Top initiative, will be run jointly by the Education Department and the Department of Health and Human Services, and grants will be awarded by Dec. 31.

Some states, however, aren’t sure the program will be worth the trouble. The grants require detailed descriptions of reform plans to assessment systems for pre-K students, improving teacher quality and other steps.

“We have not decided yet. [The state Department of Education] plans to go over the application to decide whether or not we would be competitive,” said Stephanie Sample, communications director for the Indiana Department of Education. Indiana is one of the 14 states that has not submitted “intents to apply” for the ELC. The others are Alaska, California, Florida, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Tennessee, Utah and Virginia.

North Dakota “hasn’t yet made a decision,” according to Jeff Zent, spokesman for Gov. Jack Dalrymple. In Tennessee, the matter is “still under discussion,” said Amanda Morris, spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Education.

Texas officials did not respond to requests for comment from The Washington Times, but the state is almost certain to skip the program yet again. Texas didn’t participate in the first two rounds of Race to the Top, which doled out billions of dollars in grant money to states that implemented reform plans in K-12 education.

Gov. Rick Perry, who is mulling a run for the Republican presidential nomination, has been one of the harshest critics of the program. He called Race to the Top and similar efforts “mandates and bribes” in February 2010, just after the first round of RTTT was announced by Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

“The education of our children is far too important to entrust to some federal bureaucrat toiling in a distant federal building,” said Mr. Perry, adding that the initiative seems to be yet another attempt to strengthen “federal control” over state departments of education and individual school districts across the country.

But many states have seen big paydays from the program. Tennessee and Delaware pocketed $500 million and $100 million, respectively, after the first round of RTTT. Nine states and the District received grant money after the second round. Florida and New York were the biggest winners, each getting a check for $700 million. The District was awarded $75 million, and Maryland received $250 million. Massachusetts, Hawaii, Rhode Island, Georgia, North Carolina and Ohio also got federal checks for their efforts.

The Education Department grades each state’s application on a 500-point scale. Winners then use the grant money to implement their proposed reforms, and federal officials keep a close eye on how each grantee is doing. This month, the Education Department’s Implementation and Support Unit will complete on-site program reviews with each of the 12 winning states.

“We are working closely with each state to ensure that they’re receiving the support they need to implement their plans and to create long-lasting reform that benefits students and transforms education across their state,” ISU Director Ann Whalen said in a statement last week.