US Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced a $250 million grant program last week offered through the Obama administration and aimed at expanding high-quality preschools.
Pennsylvania can apply for Preschool Development Grants worth up to $20 million for early childhood education. Duncan hopes to make the grant renewable for up to four years, but the funding is not yet available.
In a national poll by the First Five Years Fund advocacy group, 7 out of 10 voters support the plan, stating that early childhood education is one of the most important issues today, second only to "increasing jobs and economic growth," reports Michael Alison Chandler for The Washington Post.
"Providing high-quality early learning opportunities is the most important single step we can take to improve the future of our young people," said Duncan in a statement.
Duncan announced the grant opportunity last week while visiting the Hug Me Tight Childlife Center in the Hill District of Pittsburgh with Mayor Bill Peduto, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, and Pittsburgh Public Schools Superintendent Linda Lane.
"This program is being created in a way where we have every opportunity to be successful," Peduto said.
According to the Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children, there are roughly 15,602 children younger than the age of 5 in Pittsburgh. Of these, 41% are served by public funds, not including early intervention.
Duncan said the goal of the grants is to close the opportunity gap, offering better preschool programs to high-need communities.
According to a US Department of Education news release, the new grants are intended to help states as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico in "building, developing and expanding voluntary, high-quality preschool programs in high-need communities for children from low- and moderate-income families."
Pennsylvania was awarded the $51.7 million Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge Grant last year. The funds, focused on at-risk children, are geared toward improving learning standards for children from birth to age 5.
Because the state has already received this grant, if Pennsylvania also receives the Preschool Development Grant, it will be eligible for Expansion grants worth $10 million – $35 million each year for up to four years. States that are just starting to develop their preschool programs will be eligible for $5 million – $20 million each year for the four years.
"The emphasis is on getting states up and running," said Kris Perry, executive director of First Five Years Fund, an advocacy organization for early education. She called the move a positive step forward. "There is so much more demand than there is supply in every state. There is a really big difference between what's available and what's needed," she said.
Applications are due on October 14. Any grants will be awarded in December by the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services.