AUGUSTA — Maine is requesting a $32.2 million federal grant to improve the quality of and access to early childhood learning and development programs.

Maine was one of more than 30 states that expressed interest in the $500 million Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge. The application deadline was Wednesday.

Maine’s 164-page application, submitted by the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services, says it would devote the resources to:

* updating early learning and development standards and aligning them with the Common Core elementary standards, which is already under way;

* strengthening and expanding the Quality for ME rating system for early care and education providers;

* working with higher education institutions to train early childhood educators;

* incorporating early care and education programs into the State Longitudinal Data System to analyze the impact of the programs on children’s later educational achievement.

Much of the focus is on high-needs children, such as those raised in poverty or for whom English is a second language.

Investing in early childhood education pays dividends quickly — for example, children who go through high-quality programs need fewer special education services once they start elementary school, said Sheryl Peavey, director of the Early Childhood Initiative at DHHS.

Expanding the State Longitudinal Data System would allow the state to analyze the effectiveness of early childhood programs.

“We can start to quantify where we’re putting our money, and recognizing if where we’re putting our money makes a difference,” Peavey said.

Dean Crocker, president and CEO of Maine Children’s Alliance, said the Early Learning Challenge comes at a very important time, when public budgets are under special scrutiny. He hopes the data will convince state leaders to maintain support for early childhood programs.

DHHS has proposed eliminating state support for Head Start, a federal preschool program, to save $2.4 million.

“That’s a very short-sighted decision,” Crocker said. “The research on Head Start and its impact on children is very clear. It’s an evidence-based practice.”

Maine needs to do a better job of identifying children with special needs before they get to kindergarten, Crocker said.

He also hopes the grant will help state offices collaborate more effectively, something Peavey said is already happening because of the work that went into writing the application.

Crocker wrote one of several letters in support of Maine’s application to the Early Learning Challenge. Other letters came from universities, Maine’s Congressional delegation and groups representing businesses, law enforcement officers and educators.

Maine’s application to the original Race to the Top — which focused on elementary and secondary education — suffered from a lack of support from teachers and school administrators. State officials said they did not encounter resistance this time around.

One key to successful reform will be creating a sustainable infrastructure that will remain after the grant ends in four years, said Jaci Holmes, federal and state legislative liaison for the Department of Education.

Some of the money, for instance, will go toward training people to work with early care and education providers on how to participate in the Quality for ME system and how to move up the tiered rankings. Those people will continue to work after the grant’s end, Holmes said.

The federal government will decide which states to fund sometime in December because all the money must be allocated by the end of the year, Holmes said.

Although Maine’s application is for $32.2 million, implementing its proposals will cost $39.1 million. The balance would come from existing state and federal funds.

Susan McMillan — 621-5645

smcmillan@mainetoday.com