I think Race to the Top is a pretty bad policy. It uses an education funding crisis in the states as a lever to force untested and uncertain theories about education reform on school districts who need the cash. Competitive grant programs are completely within bounds, to be sure, but in a time of austerity, it’s definitely a technique reminiscent of the shock doctrine, where the Education Department dangles a few shekels in exchange for policy changes.

But early childhood education is different. Back in May, the Obama Administration announced a Race to the Top program for early childhood ed, delivering $500 million to states that expand access to early childhood learning programs. That’s a real win-win, a kind of liberal shock doctrine, encouraging states to expand a policy that every study shows brings clear benefits to children. Here’s what I wrote at the time:

No other strategies measure as highly for improving student performance than getting to a child while they’re young. There’s a compelling argument to be made that ALL the Race to the Top money should have been poured into early childhood ed. Funding for early childhood education has dipped at the state level during the Great Recession, which is bad news for students [...]

The fact that 40% of 4 year-olds are in preschool (and other studies put that number as low as 26%) is appalling and shouldn’t be tolerated. It should be the building block of any education strategy. $500 million isn’t much, but early childhood learning is arguably cheaper than some of these other programs.

Today, the Education Department announced the nine winners of their Race to the Top early childhood contest:

The winners to be announced Friday at the White House are California, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Ohio, Rhode Island and Washington, according to an administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity because the winners had not been officially announced [...]

The goal of this competition is to get more children from birth to age 5 ready for kindergarten. Thirty-five states along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico applied for the chance to win between about $50 million to $100 million apiece in prize money. The winnings are to help build statewide systems that affect all early learning programs, including child care, Head Start centers and public or private preschools.

It’s heartening that 35 states tried to get this money. I hope this shows a lot of success for the nine states who won, and that the Administration feels convinced to try again. I don’t know if there’s better money to be spent in education than this.

UPDATE: Here’s the announcement from the White House. Between this, the ruling on wage and hour protections for home health care workers and the rejection of the Florida waiver request on the medical loss ratio, there’s actually been a bit of domestic policy good news lately.