Fermin Leal / EdSource Today
Aimee Perez, left, dresses as a doctor as she gives a check-up to Chelsea Conway during their preschool class at Land School in Westminster, Calif.

Over the past three years, California has more than quadrupled the number of early childhood centers being evaluated with a new rating system, but that is still just a fraction of the state’s publicly subsidized programs.

The U.S. Department of Education released Tuesday a progress report of the 20 states, including California, that received federal Early Learning Challenge grants starting in 2011. The grants, part of the Race to the Top program, were meant to improve publicly funded early learning programs with systems to rate their quality, as well as track health screenings and assess children’s readiness for kindergarten.

The 2014 progress report found that more than 720,000 programs nationwide were evaluated under their states’ Tiered Quality Rating and Improvement Systems – an 87 percent increase. Of those, 14,000 programs ranked in the highest quality tier.

Roughly 580,000 children nationwide were enrolled in highest-tier state-funded preschool or Head Start/Early Head Start programs or centers that receive federal childcare subsidies.

“By investing in high-quality early learning through programs like the Early Learning Challenge, states are giving many more children a strong start in life,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a statement.

California was among the first nine states to receive a grant and began its efforts through a 16-county consortia. The state first received a four-year, $52.6 million grant, which was expanded to 2013 with an additional $22.4 million.

Before the grant, 49 California programs were evaluated under a fledgling system, but that jumped to 475 in 2012. By last year, 2,232 programs were rated and 662 of them were ranked in the top tiers, according to the new report.

“We’ve really seen it take off,” said Camille Maben, executive director of First Five California. “I think it’s really exciting to see this focus on improving quality, so all children, no matter what settings they are in, they have an opportunity to be part of a quality program.”

Five other states had more programs in their systems than California, including Minnesota, with 10,188.

Moira Kenney, executive director of the First Five Association, said the smaller number is partly because California began its efforts with just 16 counties, partnering with First 5 organizations and counties using tobacco-tax funds.

Also, the amount of California’s initial grant was similar to that of other states, despite California’s larger size.

“We’re serving many more children and many more programs than states that received the same amount of money,” Kenney said.

Although some counties had started rating efforts in 2006, a statewide system didn’t spread until California received the federal grant, said Sarah Neville-Morgan, deputy director of program management for First 5 California.

Since the initial 16 counties, the consortia added 14 more counties and the state has kicked in funds to expand the system, meant to improve quality within preschools and give families a way to judge them.

Despite the growth, California’s rating system is being used for about 26 percent of state preschool centers, 23 percent of Early Head Start and Head Start programs and 37 percent of programs that receive federal Child Care and Development Funds, according to the state’s report.

“The challenge is to have all the resources to bring everybody in,” Kenney said.

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