It’s official: with this week’s release of the final Early Learning Challenge Phase 2 application, teams across Colorado, Illinois, New Mexico, Oregon and Wisconsin can kiss apple picking and Friday night football goodbye and instead look forward to six weeks of hunkering down with budget spreadsheets and data tables and drafts of federal proposal narratives. Hooray! (For a cheat sheet of what they’ll be working on, see this summary of the application from our colleagues at EducationCounsel.)

While this may seem like a small step in a process that for now will affect only five states, it’s still a big deal: amid competing priorities and tough budget times, Congress and the administration maintained their commitment to state-level systems building. It was a bold move that we’re still celebrating. That commitment and momentum mean that all of you can aspire to one day have similarly Excel-filled seasons—and that the huge demand for investments in early learning infrastructure that we saw when the initial round of ELC generated 37 state applications is one step closer to being met. We’re looking forward to working with Congress and the administration to make sure there is a Phase 3 of the Challenge.

It won’t be long before all those champions for early learning who made this happen need our help again. Congress is finalizing a Continuing Resolution that will fund federal programs through March at roughly this year’s levels, which means the new Congress will have to make the tough decisions about FY13 funding when they convene next winter. Add in sequestration, which currently calls for cuts that could affect tens of thousands of children in Head Start and child care, and it’s going to be a long, bumpy road not just for Early Learning Challenge funding, but for all of the programs we care about.

Today is a great day to learn more and to speak up. This afternoon, our colleagues at NWLC, CLASP,  and NAEYC are hosting a call that will explain the budget situation in more depth. We’ll of course be keeping you updated every step along the way—and cheering for all the great hard work taking place in Early Learning Challenge states and beyond.