CASPER, Wyo. — Wyoming officials plan to compete with other states for federal grant money for early childhood education — if the guidelines match Wyoming values and federal strings aren’t too burdensome.
A letter of intent to apply for a piece of $500 million to be awarded in the Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge was sent from Gov. Matt Mead’s office, the U.S. Department of Education announced Tuesday.
Wyoming joined 35 states and the District of Columbia in submitting letters of intent.
The application and award guidelines will be released later this summer, and grants are expected to be awarded no later than Dec. 31.
The grant challenges states to create “comprehensive plans to transform early learning systems” that increase access to early learning programs for disadvantaged children, align early learning programs with later instruction and improve training in the early childhood field, among other goals.
The letter is not a commitment to apply but starts the process should Wyoming officials decide to proceed, said Mary Kay Hill, education policy adviser to the governor.
“We’ll explore the grant criteria and work with all stakeholders in early childhood education and services to consider whether or not we can put together a good application,” Hill said. “We’re always aware that federal grants have federal strings and can quickly lead to some dependence on federal dollars.”
Wyoming competed with 40 states and the District of Columbia in the first round of the 2010 Race to the Top grant program, which required states to make large and sweeping education reforms.
Wyoming’s application ranked No. 32 — more than 80 points behind the cutoff for finalists. State officials did not apply for the second round of funding.
Hill said the early learning grant differs in that it’s a smaller pool of money with a narrower focus on reform.
The Wyoming Legislature funds developmental preschools for students with special needs. Prekindergarten programs are often funded by federal grants administered through the Wyoming Department of Education and Wyoming Department of Health.
The state Department of Education is not seeking any additional federal funding at this time, said Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill in a statement sent by the her attorney, John Masters.
The state’s top education official oversees kindergarten through 12th grade education but is required by law to monitor the developmental preschool program, and many federal grants flow through the state Department of Education.
Hill, in the email sent by Masters, stood by a statement made during her campaign in 2010:
“It is time to take back our government and redirect ourselves away from overreaching, unsustainable, and reckless federal takeovers currently highlighted in programs such as ‘Race for the Top’ fiscally securing further federal control over education in our states and communities.”
Early childhood advocates left out of the state’s recent surge in education reform and accountability welcomed the announcement.
Awards will range from $50 million to $100 million depending on state population, which could go a long way for a small state such as Wyoming.
“If we want to improve our schools, we need to first improve the students that we send to them,” said Becca Freeburn, executive director of the Wyoming Early Childhood Partnership. “Kids are born learning, so we’re going to support that from the very moment they’re born.”
Mary Kay Hill said the state’s many early childhood organizations will rally together if an application is drafted.
“More than the money, it’s an opportunity to have a conversation among all the stakeholders,” she said.