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Washington D.C. – Today, U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius held a joint briefing to announce the creation of the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge, a $500 million fund created from the fiscal year 2011 omnibus appropriations bill (PL 112-10). First Focus was among the many national and state organizations that called for the creation of this critical fund, to help states give our nation’s most vulnerable children the opportunities they need to succeed in life.

Based upon the Administration’s requests in fiscal years 2009-2012 for an Early Learning Challenge Fund, the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge is a competitive grant program that will allow states to design, improve, and implement cross-sector integrated systems of early learning and development that will increase the number of low-income and disadvantaged children participating in high quality early childhood programs. In early March, Senator Bob Casey, along with Senators Coons, Franken, Durbin, Landrieu, and Murray, introduced the Strengthening State Systems of Early Learning Act, also based on this framework for an early learning challenge.|

Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus, a bipartisan child advocacy organization, released the following statement:

“We are very grateful to Congress, the Obama Administration, and the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services for this joint and critical program. Today’s ground-breaking announcement is a validation of what so many policymakers, advocates, policy experts, business leaders, economic experts, and criminal justice officials have been advocating for many years. High quality early childhood programs are absolutely essential to helping children, particularly low-income and disadvantaged children, develop, thrive, and enter school ready to learn and succeed. From birth on, high quality early childhood programs improve children’s social and emotional skills, help them succeed in school, reduce remedial education costs, decrease dropout rates, prevent crime, and help children succeed in the 21st century workforce. This funding marks the beginning of prioritizing a federal-state commitment to a system of early learning and care – a cross-sector and integrated system within each state.

“This is truly a landmark victory for the importance of early childhood, and for infants and young children across our nation. We are grateful for the effective collaboration between the Departments of Education and Health and Human Services in their focus on the importance of early learning. We thank Secretary Duncan for affirmatively stating today his commitment that this partnership between Education and HHS is in this effort ‘for the long haul.’ And we thank Secretary Sebelius for so expertly summing up the challenges states face with a patchwork of fragmented programs that must be unified and streamlined into a working system that is holistically focused on the best interests of children. We also praise her for highlighting the importance of high quality social, emotional, and health care in giving children the start they need to succeed, and for clearly emphasizing the developmental perspective of this funding.

“Today’s announcement has the potential to become the turning point in transforming early childhood programs into a system of early learning and development in which, ultimately, no child falls through the cracks. It is every child’s birthright to achieve the potential with which she was born. No child should be denied that because of her family’s income or where she lives. At a time of tough decision making, we are highly encouraged by the Administration’s prioritizing of early childhood, and the value of investing in our youngest children. We also hope the new funding will provide an avenue for those states that have the political will and ability, but not the resources, to have made as much progress as have some states. We must reward innovative change and success and provide models for other states. But we must also ensure that states that are sincerely working hard to improve quality, have the opportunity to be part of this effort, and that their children are given the chance to grow, thrive, and ultimately succeed in life.”

Emphasizing that this funding was designed to reward progress and not the status quo, Secretary Duncan said the application materials will be finalized soon (later clarification indicated that the application process would be released by late summer), and all funding needs to be distributed by the end of the calendar year 2011. Secretary Duncan also stated that not rewarding the status quo means not continuing the current inconsistency of available high quality early childhood programs in all communities across the country.