Earlier this month, a cross-agency team made up of staff from the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services sent Maine’s application for $32 million in Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge funds off to Washington, D.C.

The 164-page application lays out an ambitious, and achievable, plan for strengthening our state’s early learning and development programs and making them available to more of our high-needs children.

It’s a plan that dovetails with the multiple calls for investments in early childhood education voiced recently on these opinion pages.

It’s a plan that would take Maine’s current medley of early learning and development programs and apply consistent standards of quality to programs paid for through a variety of funding streams and offered in a variety of settings.

The plan builds in incentives for programs to subscribe to the highest standards of quality of possible.

It’s a plan that would make significant investments — with the help of our higher education partners — in the resources available to train our corps of early childhood educators.

And it’s a plan that would expand access to early learning programs for our state’s highest-needs children — those with low-income parents, those in remote areas without access to reliable transportation, those with parents who aren’t native English speakers.

Maine’s plan would usher in an age in which we make early childhood policy decisions based on a solid foundation of evidence.

That’s because Maine’s Race to the Top plan proposes to incorporate more early childhood data into our existing State Longitudinal Data System so we can know which programs and practices yield the most promising outcomes.

And if we are able to implement our plan, the availability of data and a transparent quality rating system would make it easier for families to make informed decisions about education and care for their young children.

Maine’s Race to the Top plan has attracted support from early childhood educators, businesses, higher education representatives and school administrators. It has attracted widespread support for good reason. The research on brain development is clear: About 85 percent of it happens in the first five years of life.

If we can offer our children high-quality educational experiences when the impact is greatest, we can greatly increase the chances that our children start kindergarten ready to succeed in their learning and less likely to need extra — and costly — supports to catch them up to their peers.

These investments can help more of our students start school ready to meet rigorous learning standards and prepared to stay on track for success in college and careers.

I encourage everyone to read Maine’s Race to the Top plan.

Check it out at www.maine.gov/education/fouryearold/racetothetop/.

Stephen L. Bowen is Maine’s Commissioner of Education.

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