The Early Learning Challenge Fund: A Gift That Keeps on Giving

Overall, I am extremely encouraged that the state winners understand the importance of informing, engaging and supporting families in their early learning efforts, so parents can partner with schools to help their children learn and achieve.
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It is no coincidence that one of the final moves made by the U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services this year was to announce the award winners of the latest Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge. This $280 million federal investment in early childhood education truly is the gift that keeps on giving.

Study after study shows that high quality early childhood education and development starting at birth yields high economic, academic and social returns for children, families and entire communities. This is especially beneficial for children of color, who suffer with disproportionately higher rates of poverty. High quality early childhood programs are the key to unlocking a brighter future for all children, and therefore one of the best gifts to the nation.

On behalf of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation (WKKF), we applaud Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Vermont for winning federal funding in the latest Race to the Top-Early Learning Challenge competition. As an organization that currently invests $173 million in education and learning programs, we understand the significance of these investments for improving conditions for children in their states. We are especially proud of our home state of Michigan, a priority place for our funding, that will use these funds to support innovative approaches for improving the quality of early learning, so that more children and families have a fair chance at success now and in the future.

The commitment of Gov. Snyder; lawmakers; community organizations and advocates; parents and Michigan's business community to make sustainable improvements to the state's early learning system will lead to putting more of our vulnerable children on the pathway to success. In recent years, Michigan has: established an Office of Great Start--Early Learning; marshaled an advocacy community that has rallied around this issue, including strong leadership from Michigan's nonprofit, foundation and business communities; engaged the Legislature who just this past year championed the largest expansion of early learning funding in the country, and a proposed budget for this year that doubles that investment; progressed toward establishing a robust, quality rating system; and engaged 1,400 parents, service providers, policymakers, early childhood experts and advocates from the state to create a collaborative and comprehensive plan for early learning and development across Michigan.

Although Mississippi, another of our priority places, did not receive funding, the state's continued participation in the competition is a step in the right direction. Mississippi's community and educational leaders came together in support of creating a more equitable education system. They should be proud of their efforts and continue harnessing the collective thinking of local leaders' homegrown solutions. We are grateful that the state passed legislation to expand access to public Pre-K programs this past year and that the Mississippi Department of Education has invested $2 million in early learning, and new State Superintendent of Education Dr. Carey Wright has prioritized early learning as a key factor in improving educational outcomes for all children in the state. Momentum is growing around this critical need for the future of Mississippi and its children.

The early learning challenge exists to inspire collaboration and bring community partners together, and most importantly, expand grassroots solutions that are working. In New Mexico, another of our foundation's priority places, a supplemental award this summer from the 2013 early learning challenge grant fund is enabling the state to improve and expand its own effective early learning programs.

Overall, I am extremely encouraged that the state winners understand the importance of informing, engaging and supporting families in their early learning efforts, so parents can partner with schools to help their children learn and achieve. Frequently, family engagement is left out of the national dialogue on early childhood education -- when in fact children's success relies upon it.

Additionally, all of the state winners had a focus on improving the quality of early learning programs. Research clearly shows -- despite a select few politically motivated critics claiming otherwise -- that high quality programs are key to producing the best outcomes for kids and families alike, and our foundation has consistently stood in support of high quality teaching for our youngest learners.

The early learning challenge is a great example of how community support for early learning can come to fruition. As I look forward to the upcoming year, I am excited to see how all the winners implement their plans, and how these states will inspire continued local innovation in early childhood education.

In the New Year, I look forward to elevating the conversation on high quality early childhood programs for infants and toddlers. The first three years of a child's life are the most critical and when we start early and strong, positive outcomes increase exponentially. Research clearly shows that starting investments at birth is the only way to achieve the seven to ten percent return on investment that early childhood development delivers through better education, health and social outcomes. This distinct focus on our nation's youngest learners and their parents is what we need to lay a strong foundation for finally breaking the cycle of poverty and helping children reach their full potential.

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