This morning we learned that California was successful in its bid to receive a Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge Grant from the federal Departments of Education and Health and Human Services.

California was among 35 states, plus Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico, to submit an application to the $500 million state-level competition designed to improve early learning and development systems. Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington also received grants.

Not only is this a great accomplishment for our state, and particularly the hard-working staff at the California Department of Education who completed a very challenging application, but it is a great day for Contra Costa County, one of 16 counties written into the State’s application. We are blessed with many strong leaders in early childhood who have diligently worked to raise the quality of early learning in our county, and our inclusion in this grant is a testament to their passion and hard work.

We are also fortunate to be represented by Congressman George Miller, who first introduced legislation in 2009 to create the Early Learning Challenge Fund and has worked with the Obama administration to ensure that this program found a home within the Race to the Top initiative. He has been, and remains, a leading champion for children in the U.S.

According to State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, California’s $52.6 million grant will primarily fund local Quality Rating and Improvement Systems to evaluate individual early learning programs on common standards including the learning environment, teacher effectiveness, and parent engagement. This system is particularly focused on improving access to high-quality early education for children who need it most, an outcome in alignment with our own Preschool Makes a Difference (PMD) program.

With generous support from the Thomas J. Long Foundation, we have been able to expand PMD to three regions in Contra Costa County, setting a high bar for quality and ensuring low-income children have access to high-quality preschool. We are indebted to the Long Foundation for its support, which has helped put Contra Costa on the map when it comes to innovative approaches for early learning in California.

The high-profile announcement of the ELCG awardees at a White House press conference this morning signifies the importance the Obama Administration places on early education. Nobel Laureate James Heckman was on hand to make the case for the economic advantages of supporting early education to reduce inequality and develop the “whole child.”

I think Secretary of Education Arne Duncan summed it up best in his comments this morning: “We have to educate our way to a better economy.  And education starts at birth.”

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