Washington snags Race to the Top money

SEATTLE -- A kindergarten program that so far is in just three Mid-Columbia school districts will be expanded to other schools sooner than expected, after Washington became one of nine states to get a share of a $500 million federal grant Friday.

The other winners -- chosen from 37 applicants -- are California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio and Rhode Island.

Gov. Chris Gregoire sounded almost giddy Friday relaying the news that Washington won $60 million from the federal government to expand its efforts to help children get better prepared for kindergarten.

"It's just a grand day for our little learners and for the people of our state," the governor said.

Parents and teachers will see the effect of the grant money mainly in two programs -- the Quality Rating and Improvement System and the Washington Kindergarten Inventory of Developing Skills -- said Kara Klotz, spokeswoman for the state's Department of Early Learning.

The first program monitors and trains child care providers. The second, which also is called WaKIDS, helps kindergarten teachers assess a child's abilities before entering school, among other improvements.

In the Mid-Columbia, only the Kennewick, Prosser and Kiona-Benton City school districts participated in the WaKIDS pilot program so far, according to state records. The grant money will be used to expand the program to all districts shortly, Klotz said.

With the federal dollars and a close partnership with nonprofits Thrive by Five Washington and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, plus the University of Washington, the governor believes Washington has everything it needs now to set an example for the rest of the country.

Gregoire said one thing is clear to everyone involved in education: "If we can get these little people ready for kindergarten, we will give them a rocket boost. ... Failing in that regard, it's an uphill battle."

Sen. Patty Murray, who has encouraged the Obama administration to put more money into preschool education, couldn't agree more.

"As a former preschool teacher, I've seen first-hand how investments in early learning programs pay off for our children. And I know that students who have access to high-quality early childhood education are more prepared for elementary school and have a better shot at getting their educational career started on the right track," said the Washington Democrat in a written statement.

Murray spoke to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in early May to push him to use a significant amount of Race to the Top dollars for early learning.

Duncan announced the $500 million Early Learning Challenge later that month.

Earlier this month, Murray called Duncan to personally lay out the strengths of Washington's application, her office said.

Washington won no money in the earlier rounds of Race to the Top, which were focused on K-12 education.

The state failed to pass a key benchmark the federal government used in determining the winners of those competitions. Washington does not allow charter public schools, and for the most part, the winners all do.

This time around, Washington didn't have any trouble qualifying for the federal money, but that doesn't mean the competition wasn't tough.

Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico entered the competition.

Washington likely gained points for the quality and creativity of its early learning initiatives but expected to lose some points for the reach and longevity of these programs, said Bette Hyde, director of the Washington Department of Early Learning, when the application was submitted.

"This plan is what we want to do, and whether we get the money or not, we're doing this," she said.

The state's focus on early learning is one of the only direct results of Gov. Chris Gregoire's Washington Learns initiative in 2005.

The initiative led to the establishment of the Department of Early Learning in 2006, which has gotten a lot of help from the private nonprofit Thrive by Five Washington and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

About 70 percent of the federal dollars are expected to be invested in Washington's preschool system for training and coaching of child care providers, and to do the rating and build the database for child care and preschool programs across the state.

Preschools and child care programs can earn a rating of 1 to 5 under the system.

The programs rated so far serve just 800 children, but the goal is to rate programs that serve more than 70,000 kids by 2015, with a focus on kids living in poverty.

Washington's more than 1,200-page proposal -- including appendices -- was based on an existing 10-year plan for early learning.

The federal dollars would help the state move faster toward its goals, Hyde said.

In her cover letter for the application, Gregoire emphasized that Washington already is working toward a great early learning system, despite the economy.

"We are building a world-class early learning system because it is the right thing to do and it is the smart thing to do," the governor wrote.

She said the state already has a bold plan and it has momentum; all it needs now is more money.

Hyde believes both early learning programs will help Washington kids make progress on the school achievement gap between kids of different races and economic backgrounds.

"If children start behind, they very likely stay behind," she said.