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Nebraska is among 37 states that plan to apply for round three of the federal Race to the Top grants -- $500 million aimed at bolstering early childhood education programs.

State Education Commissioner Roger Breed said he asked the governor to send a letter of intent to apply for up to $50 million, but whether Nebraska actually applies depends on the grant application guidelines, which haven't been finalized. States can apply for between $50 million and $100 million, depending on their populations.

"It's not a small amount of money," Breed said. "But again, depending on how you have to divide and spread that money, it may not be worth the effort and the changes a state might have to endure."

Nebraska applied for the first two rounds of Race to the Top grants in an effort to get a piece of the $4.35 billion being distributed to states. It was overlooked -- coming in third to last out of 41 applicants in the first round.

The first grants were aimed at states willing to make innovative reforms. The fact that Nebraska doesn't authorize charter schools was among the things that worked against it.

Breed said the first grants also were slanted toward urban populations. Among suggestions Nebraska officials have made to the U.S. Department of Education is that the early education grants include some preference or flexibility for states with large rural populations, he said.

The tentative criteria for the federal early childhood education grants focus on having rating systems for early childhood programs, creating appropriate standards and assessments for young children and having statewide credentials for early childhood teachers.

Nebraska schools now use a variety of federal and state funding sources to support early childhood education. A state endowment fund established five years ago gives grants to school districts to start early childhood education programs that later can receive state aid.

In 2009-10, the grants funded 71 district programs that served 3,042 children; 5,579 4-year-olds were in programs that received state aid, according to the Nebraska Department of Education.

The federal Head Start program funded 27 programs that served 6,349 children in 2009-10.

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Lincoln Public Schools had 846 children in early childhood education programs in 24 of its elementaries and one church last year. LPS served another 466 special-education students and those in home-based programs and school day cares. The programs are paid for with a combination of federal and state funds.

The endowment and Nebraska standards for school-based preschools are among the factors that would work in the state's favor, Breed said. Another plus are the Educare preschool programs operating Nebraska. The pre-schools, backed by the Susan Buffet Foundation, are national models. Lincoln Public Schools is working with the foundation to open an Educare Center.

The bottom line is whether the grants will be structured to help Nebraska better educate its at-risk children, Breed said.

"The basic tenet for Nebraska is to get serious about closing the achievement gap; to get serious about responding to an increasingly diverse and socio-economically challenged population, we have to get serious about early education for students," he said.

​Reach Margaret Reist at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com

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